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What you need to know about Operation Claret 1964-1966

Most Malaysians are aware about the Indonesian-Malaysian Confrontation, a conflict which happened in the years 1963-1966 as a result of Indonesia’s opposition to the creation of Malaysia.

However, most may not have heard about Operation Claret, which was a long running series of secretive cross-border raids by conducted by British Commonwealth forces in Borneo.

The operation was conducted during the confrontation across the border in Indonesian Kalimantan.

Here what you need to know about Operation Claret 1964-1966:

1.What was the mission of Operation Claret?

Claret was the code name given to highly classified and never publicised operations conducted from July 1964 until July 1966 in East Malaysia (Sabah and Sarawak) across the border in Indonesian Kalimantan.

It was part of a new strategy planned to stop Indonesian incursions by forcing them onto the defensive mode.

With the agreement of the British and Malaysian government, the operation was instigated by the Director of Borneo Operations (DOBOPS) Major General Walter Walker.

During the earlier part of the confrontation, both British Commonwealth and Malaysian troops were only patrolling the border and protecting the local communities in Malaysian Borneo.

Then, the operation slowly increased their penetration into Indonesian territory from 3,000 yards, to 6,000 yards and finally 10,000 yards in April 1965.

Since these operations were about penetrating the Indonesian border and it was a matter of violation of state sovereignty, Operation Claret was highly classified. All those involved were sworn to secrecy.


British Royal Marines Commando unit armed with machine gun and Sten gun patrolling using a boat in the river on Serudong, Sabah between 1963 until 1966. Credit: Malaysian Archive [Public domain]
2.Who were involved in Operation Claret?

Most Claret operatives were from the British infantry units. As for special forces operations, they were undertaken by the British Special Air Service, Special Boat Sections, Guards Independent Parachute Company, Gurkha Independent Parachute Company, patrol companies of the Parachute Regiment (C Company 2nd and D Company 3rd Battalions), the Australian Special Air Service Regiment and the 1 Ranger Squadron, New Zealand Special Air Service.

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But the reconnaissance and intelligence gathering activities of the Border Scouts, mostly trained by 22 SAS, are unclear (apart from their accompanying many infantry patrols). Plus, how involved the Malaysian Army units who undertook Claret operations is also unclear.

3.What were the ‘Golden Rules’ of Operation Claret?

In order to ensure the secrecy of Operation, all operatives needed to abide what they known as the ‘Golden Rules’.

These were the rules:
Every operation will be authorized by DOBOPS
Only trained and tested troops will be used.
Depth of penetration must be limited and the attacks must only be made to thwart offensive action by the enemy.
No air support will be given to any operation across the border, except in the most extreme of emergencies.
Every operation must be planned with the aid of a sand table and thoroughly rehearsed for at least two weeks.
Each operation will be planned and executed with maximum security. Every man taking part must be sworn to secrecy, full cover plans must be made and the operations to be given code-names and never discussed in detail on telephone or radio. Identity discs must be left behind before departure and no traces – such as cartridge cases, paper, ration packs, etc.- must be left in Kalimantan.
On no account must any soldier taking part be captured by the enemy- alive or dead.

Since no soldiers, alive or dead, were to be left behind, bodies and those who were wounded had to be carried back to the Malaysian side of the border no matter what.

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Thankfully for the Commonwealth forces, there were only few such cases. Officially, there was only one helicopter ‘casevac’ (casualty evacuation) from Kalimantan recorded.

There are at least two cases of soldiers being lost across the border but there are no records of Indonesians found the bodies.

4.How secretive was Operation Claret?

Then Indonesian president Sukarno, who had been vocal about his opposition on the formation of Malaysia, possibly did not even know about Operation Claret.

According to Raffi Gregorian in “Claret Operations and Confrontation, 1964-1966”, Sukarno possibly never knew about British activities in Kalimantan or that by August 1965 his soldiers were no longer operating in East Malaysia.

For any casualties during Operation Claret, the deaths were publicly reported to have happened in East Malaysia, not in Kalimantan.

Furthermore, Britain only publicly disclosed Operation Claret in 1974 while the Australia only officially admitted its involvement in 1996.

To this day, the exact number of Claret operations and their objectives are unclear.

Operational reports are available in UK National Archives but they do not identify any actions specifically to Claret. As for any incidents of ‘contacts with Indonesian forces’, the reports implied that the action took place in East Malaysia.

Although the operations were done in complete secrecy, the operatives could not hide from the local people. For instance in the Krayan Highlands near the Indonesia-Malaysia border, some of the elders have pointed out some mountain ranges where they said the British soldiers hid during ‘konfrontasi’.

This was because throughout the second half of 1965 and into January 1966, the battalion continued to prevail over the Indonesian in the valley between Long Bawan and Long Midang. During this period, every man in Company ‘C’ had spent at least half of his time actually living in Kalimantan.

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Local guide Alex Ballang from Krayan Highlands pointing out where British soldiers were hiding during the confrontation.
5.How did Operation Claret help to end the Indonesian-Malaysian Confrontation?

Operation Claret in a way helped to avoid any unnecessary escalation during the confrontation. By keeping Operation Claret a secret and reporting any deaths happened on Malaysian side of the border, Britain, Malaysia and Australia were able to tell the world that Indonesia was the aggressor during the confrontation.

According to Gregorian, the operation may have increased the division between Sukarno and the army officers who played an important key role in his overthrow later.

The army would not have been telling Sukarno about his military failings on his side of the border. Meanwhile, Sukarno continued to believe that the war was fought on the Malaysian side of the border.

When the Battle of Plaman Mapu in Sarawak happened on Apr 27, 1965, it became the peak battle of Operation Claret and the turning point for the confrontation.

The battle was the last attempt by Indonesian forces to launch a major raid into Malaysian territory after being defeated a number of times, especially by Claret operatives.

Indonesia lost the battle with at least 30 casualties, while two were killed and eight wounded on the British side.

Due to this, tensions continued to rise between the army and the Communist Party of Indonesia (PKI) who backed up Sukarno.

Eventually, the communists were thrown out of power and left Sukarno alone with his Confrontation.

Since, the concept of ‘Konfrontasi’ was introduced to Sukarno by PKI. Without the support of the Communists, the Confrontation quickly became unpopular in Indonesia and eventually came to an end before it escalated into a full-fledged war.

Patricia Hului
Patricia Hului is a Kayan who wants to live in a world where you can eat whatever you want and not gain weight. She grew up in Bintulu, Sarawak and graduated from the University Malaysia Sabah with a degree in Marine Science. She worked for The Borneo Post SEEDS, which is now defunct. When she's not writing, you can find her in a studio taking belly dance classes, hiking up a hill or browsing through Pinterest. Follow her on Instagram at @patriciahului, Facebook at Patricia Hului at Kajomag.com or Twitter at @patriciahului.
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