The Real "Up Top"
The Real "Up Top", a personal view from the decks of HMAS Curlew, a Royal Australian Navy Minesweeper during the Indonesian Confrontation, October 1965 to April 1966
Operations during Confrontation
The Navies of the British Commonwealth that operated in the BCFESR gathered together a force of ships, which at one point totalled 87, of similar classes, to operate during the Indonesian Confrontation of the Federated States of Malaysia, including a large number of Ton class minesweeper from four navies. HMAS Curlew and 5 other ships from the RAN were Ton class minesweepers of the 16th. MCM Squadron, RAN, and all took part in several tours of duty during this emergency. Royal Navy, Royal New Zealand Navy, and Royal Malaysian Navy ships based in Singapore and Hong Kong made up and were part of the 6th. and 11th. Minesweeper squadrons. The minesweepers and other small vessels were backed up by frigates, destroyers and an aircraft carrier of the FESR, including warships from the RAN.
Danger from hostile forces
In Malaysian waters the Indons mounted infiltration and sabotage operations usually at night using small numbers of men. Indonesia concentrated on sabotage, directed towards Singapore (from the west Johore area) and central Malaya near Port Dickson from bases on Palau Rupat and further north at Palau Medang.
From UP TOP (Grey), page 60: "Patrolling against Indonesian infiltration parties was characterized by long periods of tedious routine punctuated by moments of high activity and occasional hazard". Another quote: "Throughout Confrontation the small Ton Class Minesweepers proved to be a worthy patrolboat with a useful all round capability. However it came as no comfort to those onboard to know that they were out-gunned by nearly every Indonesian warship and shore batteries in the region". This is a Komar-San, Russian built fast patrol boat with two SSMs mounted. On page 61, Lt. Gus M, CO of HMAS Teal wrote of patrolling in Singapore Strait: "by far the most interesting and demanding patrol area in Malaysia. The attention required to keep the darkened ship clear of heavy merchant traffic is both challenging and tiring. The area abounds with unlit contacts, most of which are innocent fishermen (albeit breaking the curfew) or floating bamboo stakes (which give a surprisingly solid radar echo). Median line navigation, patrolling Indonesian Navy ships, and infiltrators add to the general requirement of unremitting attention to detail"
The intensity of the operations, with sleep deprivation, caused stress to be felt in all members of the Curlew crew in some form or another, living in such a confined area as a small ship with nowhere to go for a break is in itself stressful. Minor personality clashes add to the stress. When at sea one cannot go for a walk as is possible in the other two armed services. Of course in 1965 there were no Grief/Stress Councilors! Regardless of the conditions & stress, official punishment returns (included in the ROPs) for the period were "nil". Reflection suggests that efficiency, harmony and camaraderie involving all ranks was a large part of Curlew having a happy crew.
During patrol all contacts on the radar were investigated, some were called in from a Long Range Maritime Patrol Aircraft (LRMP) flying the area on a 24 hour basis. A Continuous Air Patrol (CAP) of fighters also flew on a 24 hour basis during times of high alert. Continuous patrols were flown by LRMPs, RAF Shackletons flew from Changi and RAAF Neptunes from Butterworth. They would often direct patrolling ships to suspect targets. During a flip in a Shackleton when the ship was in self maintenance I was amazed to see as many as 200 contacts on the radar screen at one time. Our ship radar was also cluttered with as many as 20 or more contacts at any one time. Merchant ships were easily recognizable however small boats traveling slowly were not so easy to identify and it was known that they also stopped when there was an approaching patrol vessel in an attempt to escape detection. The great majority of the radar contacts were floating pieces of bamboo that we believed were some times deliberately thrown in by the Indons. Bamboo floating vertically in the water returned a very good strong radar echo and all contacts had to investigated.
CAP was flown from Changi by land based aircraft off loaded from HMS Ark Royal (R09). An RN aircraft carrier, the size of Ark Royal with 48 aircraft on board was indeed a threat to Indonesia. However such a carrier was a most useless tool against infiltrators but the ships jet aircraft were an instant air force and they were used from ground bases in Singapore and Malaysia to fly CAP. RAAF Sabres, Canberra bombers and then Mirages were used from Butterworth. There was only two occasions when Curlew called a CAP aircraft down and both were in Malacca while trying to discourage drift net fishermen from leaving port to fish. Both times the aircraft were Bucaneers. Although LRMPs and CAP aircraft flew round the clock we never heard them or were aware of them overflying. Occasionally one would be seen landing or taking off from Changi.
The process of investigation was called Approach Stations and involved the watch plus certain key persons. Many approach stations were carried out during a typical night patrol in Singapore or Malacca Strait. We were all working in a state of high alert and even though not every member of the crew was involved in approach stations, the very recognizable changes in ship behavior during any maneuver was enough to awaken everyone. A lot of the off duty personnel would sneak down the darkened starboard side of the ship to the sweep deck to see what was happening on the port side which was the processing side of the ship and so we were generally deprived of any good sleep. Some times a night patrol was followed by carrying out a check sweep, or a day patrol, with some boats going to anchor and 1 or 2 covering all the patrol lines of the previous night aided by good visibility during the daylight, then returning to a shorter line that night. This procedure was often used in Malacca Strait near Port Dickson opposite known Indonesian infiltration bases on Palau Rupat.
Minesweeper Blown Up
Grey's research was flawed in that from UP TOP page 56: "At no stage, however do the Indonesians appear to have targeted naval ships in these attacks, although the coastal minesweepers were wooden hulled vessels and might have proved more venerable than the frigates and destroyers".
Contrary to this Official History Record, an RN Minesweeper, the HMS Woolaston was blown up and badly damaged in June 1965 with the loss of one Midshipman (Finch) and 11 sailors wounded some seriously.
Part of the operational duties for the ships, involved enforcing a night curfew on all small vessel operations in the waters of the Federated States of Malaysia. During one such operation just prior to Curlew arriving in Singapore in 1965, a Royal Navy minesweeper the HMS Woolaston (M1194), intercepted an outboard powered sampan and brought it alongside the port side of the ship, which was the accepted procedure at the time. According to official records the crew of the sampan jumped over the side and swam off into the darkness. A midshipman (Finch) and another rating went on board to search the captured vessel. It exploded and as we were told, only a shoe identified as belonging to the midshipman was recovered with his foot still in it. The explosion ripped a very large hole in the side of the minesweeper, penetrating and severely damaging the generator space.
|Woolaston listed to Starboard at SND - there is a hole into the gerenator space along the boot topping and the bulwark fwd. of the door is blown off. There is a blast shadow down the side from the jumping ladder (see rigged below).||Returning from Borneo with the bulwark fwd. of the door blown inwards and the vegetable lockers damaged. Just hope the rum tot jar is not broken!|
|Woolaston was used for experimental camouflage paint schemes - this was an early attempt at a night disguise.|
The real reason for the explosion would not have been officially recorded although was common knowledge in naval circles in Singapore. The British as is there custom of being the typical "colonial types" in an outpost of the British Commonwealth, had a number of bondwood ski boats built at the Singapore Naval Dockyard. Several of these were operating at the NAAFI ski club in Johore Strait next to the submarine base, two were at the yacht club in Labuan and a couple of RN minesweepers carried them on deck. To get outboard motors for the ski boats the British Navy took them from intercepted Indon boats whilst on patrol. The search of a small sampan which did not find any explosives is incredible given that the ships side was 3 inch thick timber, double planked and that the damage to Woolaston included critical penetration of the hull, the charge would have been quite large. Very sloppy procedures!
From the obituary of the Captain, Miles Rivett-Carnac, Bt, later Sir Miles Rivett-Carnac, 9th Bt, who died on September 15th., 2009 aged 76:
"In 1965 Woolaston was on patrol off Borneo during the Confrontation with Indonesia when she encountered a sampan that had been booby-trapped with a mine; it exploded, killing one man and wounding eight, and putting the minesweeper out of action for six weeks. Rivett-Carnac was mentioned in despatches."
Handling, Searching and Trussing prisoners
Following this disaster, the procedure for dealing with apprehended vessels was changed so they were never brought alongside. The suspect vessel was made to stop and the crew was forced, by threat of being shot, to jump in the water and swim to the port side of the minesweeper, where a jumping ladder and two cluster lights were rigged.
(The following is an outline of prisoner handling in HMAS Curlew in 1965 and 1966 and is not dissimilar to that used in Abu Ghraib, Iraq, which had the free world horrified and crying foul! Perhaps we too, breached part of the Geneva Convention.)
One by one the prisoners in the water were called to climb the jumping ladder and on the assumption that a prisoner could be carrying a hand grenade between the cheeks of his backside, the first action by the prisoner reception party was to grasp the person by the back of the head as he reached deck level and bang his face into the deck. If he was carrying a hand grenade it was hoped that it would be dropped into the water at this point. Next the prisoner was grasped by the arm from each aide and thrown at the closed door to the generator space opposite. Legs were kicked backwards so the prisoner was off balance and the body searched usually by an interpreter. Following the search the prisoner had any clothing cut away, was handcuffed and dropped to the deck on his face before the feet were tied tightly to the handcuffs by a piece of cod line spliced to the handcuffs. A green sandbag with drawstring (preserved with tar and very smelly) was then placed over the head of the prisoner, a number was put on his back and he was then dragged aft or carried to the sweep deck. A smack under the ear or kick in the guts at this point was just an enforcement of the fact that the prisoner was in a serious situation. Sometimes our dog Elvis would be sicked on to prisoners and she would bite them. The procedure was repeated until all the persons in the water were processed.
The photo of a captured prisoner on the deck outside the accommodation is from the book "Hands to Boarding Stations!" - J Foster-AMHP-Sydney-2000, and shows how prisoners were treated on his ship. In the text of the book the impression is portrayed that the Australian sailor is holding and aiming an Owen gun at the prisoners head!
On board HMAS Curlew the procedure was similar however the prisoners were naked after their clothing had been cut away and a number written on their back. This practice of stripping prisoners was to humiliate and embarrass them and sometimes they were bound for hours waiting for a police launch to arrive so they suffered muscle cramps in particular to the stomach muscles. If one of them refused to talk the interperator would light a cigarette and place the burning smoke between cheeks of the prisoner's backside or simply give him a hiding or a kicking!
Blowing up Junk
During operations in waters off Raffles Light, which is at the junction of Malacca Strait and Singapore Strait, the HMAS Curlew stopped a wooden boat (junk) about 40 or 50 feet in length (the second for the day) which was operating contrary to the curfew and which had been tracked on the ship radar as coming from Indonesian waters. As was the practice, the crew was forced to jump overboard one at a time and swim to the port side of the ship, where a prisoner reception party from the watch with the First Lieutenant in charge processed them. I was part of that reception party on my watch and on this occasion.
Following the securing of the prisoners (as outlined previously), the Captain called for a customs/ police launch to attend to take the prisoners from us and tow the abandoned vessel to port. No launch was available at the time and so the abandoned vessel, which was drifting in a major shipping lane, was considered a hazard to shipping and would be sunk.
The Captain called for me to attend the bridge where he directed me to make up a 9 lb. charge, with safety fuse and an igniter, which would be placed in the vessel to blow a hole in the hull. Curlew stopped about 200 yards from the vessel, starboard side to. Most of the crew by this time was on deck to watch the explosion. When the charge went off the explosion was quite large and a blast wave passed over the ship. I realized that the 9 pound charge of TNT that I placed would not have caused such a large explosion. The interpreter talked to our prisoners and it transpired that one of their number had hidden on board the junk to escape detection and was still on board when the junk was shot up by the ship and subsequently blown up.
Later a water police launch picked up the prisoners and took them to Singapore. The next day there was a shipboard enquiry into the treatment of the prisoners by the prisoner reception party as one of them had died in Singapore as a result of a severe beating. On 30th. Nov. at 1802 the ship berthed in SND and after the Captain attended a debriefing on Manxman, we were told that the second vessel we had apprehended and blown up, was filled with high explosive and was proceeding to the oil refinery at St. John Island (Singapore) in an attempt to blow it up and set fire to the oil storages. The action of the Curlew in preventing this operation was significant.
The Sin Moh was a very large sailing junk that regularly came from Indonesia and anchored off Tg. Piai and was suspected of smuggling arms ashore. It was considered to be in International Waters so could not be searched. At night the Curlew would circle the Sin Moh and sometimes fire the bridge bren into the ships rigging. On 15th. January 1966 at 0959 the Curlew anchored beside the Sin Moh and the crew were told to come onboard which they did using a small sampan. There were 8 crew that came over and they were processed and taken to the sweep deck where the interpreter gave them a fierce beating. They were ordered to be released at 1115 and the sweep deck had to be hosed to remove all traces of blood. We already had captured 2 prisoners from a small boat that was thought to be heading for Sin Moh and they had also been processed and beaten. The crew of the Sin Moh were ordered to be released to return to their ship. The other two prisoners were then handed to a police launch and it departed at 1330.
(Note:Tanjung Piai is the southern most part of Malaya, Singapore is off to the east separated from Malaya by the Johore Strait. The entrance to the channel into St. John Is. oil refinery and fuel storages is just a few miles to the east of Tg. Piai.) Later on in the afternoon the CO asked me to swim over to the Sin Moh and have a look under it by duck diving as we could see what looked like heavy ropes hanging over the side. I went with some one else and swam with fins only. This means swimming in a more or less sitting position facing backwards propelled by the fins. When we were about halfway there a shot rang out and we stopped. The CO was on the forecastle near the Vickers and he yelled for us to return to our ship. As I had my back to the Sin Moh I have no idea where the shot landed or even if was aimed at us, but it certainly put the shits up the two of us!!. Two days later at 1315 on 17th. January 1966 Curlew again investigated Sin Moh before departing at 1352 to RV with RFA Gold Ranger for fuel and water.
Prior to leaving for Sabah, Borneo in December 1965, Curlew took on board an army assault boat, this was a British built 16 foot flat bottomed aluminium boat powered by an army issue outboard motor of 40 hp. which was obviously a Johnson painted green. The idea was to have the capability to pursue infiltrators or smugglers in shallow waters and at high speed. So the boat could be dropped while the ship was at full speed (this had not been thought of by other units at the time) we rigged a slip hook on the starboard minesweeping davit and slung the assault boat over the side and lashed it to the bulwark. Once dropped in the water with a crew of 2 or 3, a boat rope kept it alongside until the outboard was started. A shipborne made spigot was fitted in the bow of the assault boat so one of the bren guns could be mounted and fired from there. The outboard was extremely unreliable and often refused to start & being towed alongside a minesweeper at 14 knots and being bashed by the ships side while the outboard was started was not much fun and in retrospect, thwart with danger. The assault boat carried no life jackets and no paddles, only the bren, our personnel weapons (Owen guns) extra magazines and a fuel tank.
A 44 gallon drum of fuel for the outboard was stored on the aft sweepdeck where it created a fire and explosion risk that was not unrealized especially if the ship came under fire. The assault boat was really good for fishing though and filled that role regularly. One pound TNT scare charges were the preferred fishing lines.
In December 1965, Curlew did a tour of duty as part of the Tawau Assault Group (TAG) in Sabah, Borneo, and at one particular time the Curlew was operational near the Indonesian border, in the Nunukan River opposite the Indonesian Island of Nunukan. There was a large Indonesian Army base on the Island with many gun batteries and a Squadron of Russian built Hound assault helicopters. The main sea border was patrolled during the day by 2 customs/water police launches manned by Malay Rangers which anchored on the border in the Nunuken River just off the base with HMAS Curlew (the picket duty) anchored about 3nm. from the border and maintained a cruising watch (one degree below Action Stations). The area was best kept under surveillance using the ship radar, however a continuous armed deck patrol and lookouts were always closed up.
Late in the afternoon Curlew left the daytime anchorage and moved to anchor on the actual border, using radar ranging, 1.5nm. from Nunukan Island and the 2 launches would then come alongside for the crew to mess, shower and maybe watch a movie below decks as the ship was darkened at night. On one occasion while moving to anchor on the border, a shore based battery opened fire on the ship, enveloping it with 3 salvos totalling 30 or 40 tracer shells, some of which I could see falling astern and slightly to the port side. From the sound I thought the battery was probably 40/60 mm or 40/70 mm, which is a common weapon of armed forces from round the world, used mainly for antiaircraft defence and close range action.
Number of investigations
A search of the log books for HMAS Curlew for the months of November & December, 1965 and the months of January, February, March & April 1966 shows that the ship investigated, shot up, sank, apprehended, captured, rescued or towed, illegal boats a total of 63 times. This is without counting the vessel searches carried out while picket ship at Tawau in Borneo which would have averaged 10 to 15 fishing, trading boats or ferries per day.
The table is a record of the 63 log entries. The entry on 23rd. February 1966, was a capture of two boats at the same time so 63 boats should read 64. Apart from the recorded entries Curlew spent so much time at night approaching floating bamboo stakes so no wonder we were all so tired.
Grey in his book seemed to indicate that the minesweepers did little, however the number of investigations (above) and an observation of nautical miles steamed by Curlew during my time in her suggests otherwise as we steamed 34,918 nm., more than one third of total miles travelled from 1953 until April 1966 (13 years). We also had been underway for 2,630 hrs and all this in just 7 months!