Thursday, November 2, 2017

Butterworth’s Unique Place in Australian Military History

Butterworth Air Base throughout the 1970s and 1980s has a unique place in Australian military history. In 1971 Australia assumed the primary role for the air defence of Malaysia and Singapore, maintaining a Mirage presence at Butterworth until 1989. Throughout that time Malaysia was involved in its Second Emergency against the armed terrorists of the Communist Party of Malaya (CPM) and its splinter groups. Aircraft of the Royal Malaysian Air Force (RMAF) based at Butterworth were engaged on military operations against communist forces active in the area. While Australia was not directly involved in the war its presence at Butterworth provided the hosts valuable support and Australian Defence personnel - and their families  -  incurred danger from the hostile forces of the enemy.

The 1967 British decision to withdraw military forces from Malaysia and Singapore in the early 1970s was of considerable concern to these nations as they were heavily dependent on Britain for security. In response the Five Power Defence Arrangements  (FPDA) were agreed to by Britain, Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia and Singapore. These nations committed to consult on the arrangements required in the event of externally organised or supported armed threats against Malaysia or Singapore. Under this arrangement Australia committed two Mirage fighter squadrons to Butterworth as the mainstay of an Integrated Air Defence System  (IADS) under the command of an Australian Air Vice Marshal. The squadrons were jointly responsible for permanently maintaining six fighters in Singapore.  The IADS, headquartered at Butterworth, began operating in September 1971. At this time Malaysia and Singapore were unable to supply personnel to staff all positions allocated to them.

At the end of the First Emergency the remnants of the Malayan Communist Terrorist Organisation took refuge in the border region of Southern Thailand. Here they rebuilt and prepared for another assault. On 1 June 1968 they announced their intention to relaunch their armed struggle against Malaysia and Singapore. The ambush  of a Malaysian Security Force patrol in the border region of Kroh-Bentong on 17 June in which 17 Security Force members were killed marks the beginning of the 21 year Communist Insurgency War, or Second Emergency.

On 1 April 1971 responsibility for Butterworth Base security, including control of entry, transferred from the RAF Regiment to the Malaysian Special Security Police (SSP). This created concern in the upper echelons of the RAAF and Department of Defence. Concerns included the competency of the SSP and Malaysia’s failure to guarantee they would not be withdrawn in part or in toto to respond to civil matters in other places. Although Australia did not foresee at this time a large scale attack on Butterworth the possibility of limited attack or acts of sabotage by CTs (Communist Terrorists) or members of sympathetic dissident groups could not be dismissed. While it was believed the RAAF had the capacity to deal with likely forms of attack a prolonged situation would impact its ability to achieve its primary objective. Another concern was the lack of a coordinated defense plan for the Base.

A review recommended that an infantry company from the ANZUK Forces in Singapore be permanently deployed to Butterworth and placed under the control of the RAAF Officer Commanding (OC). It also recommended the development of a shared defense plan for internal security under the command the RAAF OC - the OC RMAF Butterworth being the ranking officer present. Implementation of the recommendations required Malaysian approval.

Sir Arthur Tange, Secretary, Department of Defence, understood these arrangements were in place when he wrote to the Secretary,  Department of Air, on 2 March 1972, to confirm his understanding in preparation for an upcoming meeting with the Minister for Defence regarding Butterworth security. This communication also reveals the true  nature of the army company’s deployment was kept secret. ‘In addition, Malaysian reluctance having been overcome, the ANZUK company will now provide one infantry company on rotation through Butterworth on a full-time basis, ostensibly for training, flag-flying and change of scene. The presence of this company will provide the Commander with a ready-reaction force   which he can use inter alia to supplement the elements available to him under the joint Malaysian - RAAF Plan, but short of an actual overt breach of security the Commander cannot use these troops for guard or other security duties.’

On 11 January 1973, the Australian Defence Committee considered security requirements at Butterworth following the withdrawal of the Australian battalion from Singapore. It recommended the deployment of an infantry company on three monthly rotation from Australia. The Committee stated: ‘This could be presented publicly as being for training purposes.’ This secrecy is reflected in a memo from Wing Commander Brough, Senior Ground Defence Officer (SRGD), of 11 October 1974, ‘ARA INFANTRY CO AT BUT’. Brough reported a conversation with a Major Le Roy regarding the Army role at the Base. Until July 1974 the army believed their primary role was training but since then understood it was security. ‘But for political reasons it was not possible to state this is low security classification documents.’

Ong Weichong presents three phases of the rebellion: 1968-1973, 'characterised by the infiltration and movement of CPM groups into Peninsular Malaysia ; 1974; 1975-1989, describing 1974 as 'a watershed year'. This followed a split in communist ranks that saw the emergence of three factions. Ong says 1974 'was marked by spectacular acts of revolutionary violence as each CPM faction vied for the legitimacy and leadership of the communist movement in Peninsular Malaysia and Singapore'.

The fall of Saigon and Phnom Penh to Chinese supported communists in 1975 convinced the Malayan communists of the rightness of their strategy of 'using the countryside to encircle the cities ...' 1975 also raised their hopes of support from their comrades in the region - support that did not eventuate.

In 1975 CTs bombed the National Monument in Kuala Lumpur.

The Sydney Morning Herald, Sept. 12,1975, in an article ‘Malaysian towns under attack,’ reported an outbreak of urban terrorism in Malaysia. In the previous week two policemen had been killed and another 52 wounded by a grenade attack on the paramilitary police headquarters by two CTs. Malaysia’s national monument, which was close to the National Parliament, had been bombed eight days before. The article said, ‘Several Government departments, security-force camps and essential services like power stations and water works in towns throughout West Malaysia have been placed under heavy guard.’

Six months later, on March 2, 1976, the same paper carried an article ‘A hair-raising drive to Penang.’ Although a report of a taxi journey from Singapore to Penang the author commented on the insurgency. ‘Occasional Army and police roadblocks remind you that you are in a country which has a serious communist insurgency problem. Every police station is surrounded by a tall wire fence. In some areas the police rarely emerge from behind their stockade at night.’

Butterworth was not isolated from what was taking place in the rest of Peninsular Malaysia. According to an official history of the conflict published by the Malaysian Army, the communist’s 8th Assault Unit began moving into the South Kedah region near Kulim in early 1969 and remained active there until it was forced out by security forces in 1978. The following incidents in the Butterworth area were reported in different editions of the Straits Times. In March 1971  the railway bridge spanning Sungei Jarak, three kilometres from the village of Tasek Glugor in Northern Province Wellesley was dynamited by CTs. The following month two bombs exploded in Penang, communist flags were found on the Island and Province Wellesley, and suspects arrested. In May four CTs were killed and another four wounded by  security forces near Kulim, approximately 19 kilometers from Butterworth. Prime Minister Tun Abdul Razak named Penang as one of five states where the communist threat was ‘very real’ in June 1971.

Documents held in the National Australian Archives give evidence to the security situation at  Butterworth in 1975. On 3 April 1975 the Chief of Air Staff (CAS) Air Marshal (AM) J.A. Rowland advised the Minister that rocket attacks had occurred at a Malaysian air base near Kuala Lumpur and a military installation on Penang a few days earlier. The RMAF had advised of possible threats to Butterworth and had plans to disperse their aircraft to other bases. Increased security measures included limited dispersal of aircraft.  'The period of tension ... [was] expected to last until at least 22 April and probably for a further month.' A SiteRep for Butterworth and North Peninsular Malaysia dated 2 August advised of communist activity in the area. 'Increased security consisting of 5 standing patrols of half section strength deployed during hours of darkness, one section picket of aircraft lines and AirMov area and normal ready reaction section will continue until at least 8 August.'

Intelligence was received in September 1975 that the communist underground organisation had been instructed ‘to carry out rocket attacks against air bases, especially during the months of September and October.’ Butterworth and Alor Star - RAAF members also being at Alor Star - were two of the three major airbases considered likely targets - the other being at Kuala Lumpur. A fourth was considered too remote from CT strongholds. A rocket attack against the 6th Malaysian Infantry Brigade headquarters at nearby Sungai Patani on 24th September added to the concern.

On 7 October the CAS again wrote to the Minister regarding concerns of possible rocket attacks and the possibility the CTs had acquired mortars, together with identified weaknesses in Base security measures, left Butterworth vulnerable. He asked the Minister to request the Malaysian Prime Minister at an upcoming meeting to allocate at least one battalion to the immediate Butterworth area to improve defence measures. A week later the Assistant Chief of Air Staff, Air Vice Marshall McNamara informed the DJS: ‘Arrangements in place for families and the security of personnel on the Base are satisfactory.  At this time no defensive works for the protection of personnel is considered necessary, but planning has taken into account the requirement for blast shelters should the situation deteriorate further. The requirement for blast protection of aircraft against ground burst weapons and small arms fire together with aircraft dispersal is currently under review.’

Anecdotal evidence indicates revetments were constructed in early 1976. An October 1976 document confirms recent action had ‘been taken to construct revetments …’

Families were also at risk. A Families Protection Plan, dated 8 May 1972 states 'There is a threat of racial communal disturbances to families resident in Base Married Quarters, housing estates and hirings in Butterworth and Penang.'  This threat was reiterated in the 1975 JIO [Joint Intelligence Organisation] Australia document ‘The Security of Air Base Butterworth’. To quote” ‘There is always a risk of racial communal disturbances that could affect families resident in Base married quarters, housing estates, and hirings in Butterworth and Pinang.’

Dependents were also vulnerable to enemy action. JIO stated ‘the use of booby-traps and minor acts of sabotage by subversive groups are relatively common throughout Peninsular Malaysia and pose a distinct threat both to the Base and Australian personnel and their dependents.’ RAAF married quarters adjacent to the Base were considered possible targets. In April 1971, as reported in the Straits Times of 25 April, the six year old daughter of a British serviceman was killed by a communist booby trap placed in a children's playground.

Australia was not directly involved in the fight against Malaysia’s enemy and it is clear from the evidence that that is how both countries wanted it. That however does not diminish the importance of the Australian presence at Butterworth. In the lead up to a review of that presence due ‘by the end of 1976’ Group Captain J.R. MacNeil, Defense Advisor, Kuala Lumpur, considered it likely Malaysia would want to retain the Australian presence for different reasons, one being its assistance with running the Base. Wing Commander MacNeil explained:

It [the RAAF] assists the RMAF in running the largest of the four RMAF bases in West Malaysia … Because of its location and size Butterworth is very important to Malaysia in its efforts to contain CPM [Communist Party of Malaya] forces, and withdrawal of the RAAF, or any significant reduction in its size, would markedly reduce the effectiveness of the base and/or require large diversions of RMAF effort to Butterworth from other bases. The general level of achievement of the RMAF would drop if there was any large reduction in RAAF strength at Butterworth.

Currently little evidence beyond 1978 has been accessed. While Malaysia was responsible for security outside the wire, there was no guarantee the presence of combat troops if required for defence of the base. Although the OC RMAF Butterworth was the ranking officer, the Shared Defence Plan which applied inside the wire was under the control of the OC RAAF. The only specialised Ground Defence Force guaranteed to be available if and when required was the Australian Infantry Company.

While each nation was responsible for the defence of its own personnel and equipment there were shared assets vital to the operations of both air forces. Australian security personnel and the Infantry Company had a role in protecting these from the CTs and their sympathisers. The evidence from various reports and the CO Base Squadron Butterworth’s Monthly Reports shows increased security at different times to cover possible ground threats to the Base.

The RAAF presence at Butterworth during what Ong Weichong and Kumar Ramakrishna have described as 'a serious security threat'  was to act as a deterrent to external aggression against Malaysia and Singapore. While the Australian role was not concerned with internal security matters Australian personnel and their dependents were exposed to the real risk of attack from CTs and their sympathisers. Australia had the lead role in the internal defense arrangements of Butterworth Air Base, arrangements agreed to by both nations to protect both Australian and Malaysian personnel and assets against Malaysia’s armed enemy active in the immediate area. These facts make Butterworth unique in Australian military history.

Service at Butterworth during the Insurgency War is recognised by the Australian Government as peacetime.


Headquarters RAAF Butterworth. Families Protection Plan, dated 8 May 1972

Joint Intelligence Organisation (Australia). ‘The security of Air Base Butterworth.’ October 1975.

Mohamed Ghazemy Mahmud (Translator), The Malaysian Army’s Battle Against Communist Insurgency 1968-1989, Army Headquarters, Ministry of Defence, Wisma Pertahanan, Jalan Padang Tembak, 50634 Kuala Lumpur, First Printing and originally published in 2001 in the Malay language as ‘Tentera Darat Manentang Insurgensi Komunis 1968-1989.

Ong Weichong. ‘Securing the Population from Insurgency and Subversion in the Second Emergency (1968-1981).’ Submitted to the University of Exeter as a thesis for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy by  Research in History, August 2010.

Ong Weichong and Kumar Ramakrishna. ‘The “forgotten” insurgency that failed’, in ‘The Malaysian Insider’, 15 October 2013

Straits Times, The. ‘Bomb victim dies.’ 25 April 1970

Straits Times, The. articles accessed at

Straits Times, The. ‘Reds blow up bridge in north Malaysia.’ 9 March 1971

Straits Times, The. ‘Two bomb blasts in Penang: Red flags found on buildings.’ 24 April 1971.

Straits Times, The.’Security forces kill 4 reds.’ 16 May 1971.

Straits Times, The. ‘Peril in five states: Red threat very real, says Tun.’ 29 June 1971

Sydney Morning Herald, The. ‘Malaysian towns under attack: for the communist guerillas a change of tactics’. 12 September 1975

Sydney Morning Herald, The. ‘A hair-raising drive to Penang.’ 2 March 1976

Thayer. Carlyle A. ‘The Five Power Defence Arrangements: The Quiet Achiever’. ‘Security Challenges’, Volume 3, Number 1. February 2007.

National Australian Archives

NAA: A703, 564/8/28 Part 3, RAAF Butterworth – Ground defence plans

NAA: A703, 564/8/28 Part 8, RAAF Butterworth – Ground defence plans
NAA: A703, 566/2/148 Part 5, Formation, organisation and movement – HQ RAAF Butterworth

NAA: A1838, 696/6/4/5Pt 3 - Butterworth Base General

NAA: A9435, 75 - Commanding Officers’ reports - Monthly reports unit sheets (A50) - Base Squadron, Butterworth, 1948-1988


  1. Very informative article Swampy. Good history of ANZUK time in Malaysia/Singapore "during the Second Malaysian Emergency". Thanks for the efforts. Onward.

  2. Excellent stuff. Just as I remember it.

  3. Excellent article Ken. It brings back sharply memories I'd almost forgotten. I had two A grade postings to Butterworth; mid-seventies and mid-eighties. Both times we lived in married quarters at Tan Sai Gin opposite the base. In my experience there was a marked difference in the situation over that decade. In the seventies there were considerable security issues around the base and in the local areas. A Chinese business just north of the base was attacked and the owner killed by CT. Travel to Thailand by train was prohibited by the RAAF at one stage in 1975 as CT had been "shooting up" carriages near the border areas. My mates and I rode bicycles every afternoon in the countryside north of the base and out in the jungle toward Bukit Mertajam which was not off limits but not ideal. Venturing a bit too far one day, and rounding a bend quickly we ran into a sand bagged road block complete with machine gun. Several weapons were pointed at us and we were chastised loudly by Malaysian Security Police or Army, who said we should not be anywhere near this place and not to come back again. At that point I realized why we were required to do weapon training on arrival at Butterworth. In my case it was with the F1 Sub-machine gun and SLR - a bit unusual for non-combatant medical personnel. I had a neighbour who was RAAFPOL so I was a bit more informed as to what was going on around us, especially on night patrols. The security plans involving area security wardens was part of initial briefings on arrival at Butterworth.

    In the mid-eighties things were quieter but we were still aware that security was an issue. Had it not been so, the Army Rifle Company would not have still been there. Malaysian Security Police with automatic weapons were still to be seen.

    1. Thanks for your comments Paul. Depending on role and time of posting our experiences vary, which helps explain the naysayers. There is no doubt we were only told what we needed to know as we needed to know.

  4. I passed thru Butterworth ex-Vung Tau as an Army Nasho in December 1970 and after a year in Vietnam it all seemed pretty quiet then. We had a couple of days travelling to Penang on the ferry before flying to Singapore to pick up a Brit Christmas charter to the UK. In January we came back & flew DN-LAV-RIC in a C-130A.

    1. Thanks for your comment Bob. It never did blow into a Vietnam and I can understand how many that were there thought nothing happened. Yet it did. Conditions should be compared to Butterworth during the 1948-60 Emergency which, as was the case during the Indonesian Confrontation and 68-89 was an accompanied posting.