OPINION

The forgotten heroes of the Far East Strategic Reserve deserve proper recognition

SERVICE: HMAS Vendetta, at anchor pre-1967, was among the ships active in the Far East Strategic Reserve. Picture: Supplied
SERVICE: HMAS Vendetta, at anchor pre-1967, was among the ships active in the Far East Strategic Reserve. Picture: Supplied

Until now, one particular theatre of Australian and New Zealand active service lies almost forgotten in Australian Defence annals - that of our service in the Far East Strategic Reserve (1955-71).

This remains one of the longest operational defence commitments by Australian and New Zealand armed forces in the history of both nations.

In 1955, Australia committed forces to the Far Eastern Strategic Reserve (FESR) in response to a request from the British government for assistance protecting Malaya against the insurgency of Communist terrorists.

There were two particularly hostile periods, the Malayan Emergency (1955-60), and Borneo Indonesian Confrontation (1962-66), with a number of disturbances scattered through the 22 years.

Nearly 30,000 service personnel from the RAN, RNZN, RAAF, RNZAF, Australian and New Zealand armies discharged active service in the reserve, many with multiple tours.

Les Bailey in 2021. Picture: Supplied

Les Bailey in 2021. Picture: Supplied

It's surprising how little is known by the general public about the role of the men and ships that served during the Malayan Emergency and the Indonesian Confrontation.

In July 1955, Royal Australian warships HMAS Arunta and HMAS Warramunga took up station in Malayan waters; the first RAN units officially allotted to the reserve. HMAS Quiberon followed shortly after.

A total of 26 ships and their respective ships companies served, many with multiple tours of duty.

Perhaps the terms "emergency" and "reserve" create some confusion as to their purpose.

Maybe if they had been labelled the Malayan War and Far East Strategic Force, people would have had a better understanding of the conflict and accepted its legitimate place in military history.

RAN activities included bombardment of enemy positions, patrols, air operations, interception of seaborne insurgents and covert intelligence operations.

Service could at time be arduous, life at sea in the tropics was occasionally dangerous and seldom pleasant in mess decks with no air-conditioning.

Les Bailey as a junior sailor in 1960. Picture: Supplied

Les Bailey as a junior sailor in 1960. Picture: Supplied

Australia's role was wide ranging. Warships carried out patrols along the Malayan and Borneo coastlines (renamed Malaysia, after independence), supported Commonwealth forces with bombardments of enemy positions, intercepted raids by seaborne insurgents and undertook covert intelligence operations.

Some personnel were seconded to the Malaysian Navy to help the fledgling country's fight.

Unfortunately, in terms of public perception this period is overshadowed at either end by Korea and Vietnam.

From 1955-71, RAN casualties including two killed in action off the coast of Malaya in 1957.

Seven RAN sailors died on operational service because of illness, accident and aircraft crashes.

The Malayan government subsequently awarded RAN personnel the Malayan Defence Medal, Pingat Jasa.

Petty Officer Les Bailey. Picture: Supplied

Petty Officer Les Bailey. Picture: Supplied

It is prudent to point out it took until 2000 for the Australian government to recognise the service of 18,000 personnel in the Malayan Emergency and Borneo Indonesian Confrontation, and even now there are still ongoing issues.

The Australian War Memorial records the following numbers killed while serving in their respective theatres:

  • Malayan Emergency 38 (27 army, nine RAAF, two RAN)
  • Borneo Indonesian Confrontation 16 (15 army, one RAAF)

The numbers injured from, or disabled by, active service in both theatres is known to be considerable.

Sadly, many have since died from illnesses acquired during the discharge of service for this country all those years ago.

While full benefits were awarded to army and air force personnel, it was only after a fight led by Veteran Affairs Minister Bruce Scott, Vice Admiral Sir Richard Peek, Admiral Mike Hudson (then president of the Naval Association) and Noel Payne that the government commissioned a review.

While this service may be recognised among the battle honours of RAN warships, army regiments and RAAF squadron, recognition on memorials across our nation is minimal.

Veterans of the FESR believe we deserve recognition equitable to our brothers in the many post-World War II conflicts with a standalone memorial.

To this end, veterans of the FESR Navy Association, National Malay Borneo Veterans Association and Royal Australian Air Force Association collaborated to form a foundation and establish an appropriate memorial in Canberra.

Royal Australian Navy national servicemen. Picture: Supplied

Royal Australian Navy national servicemen. Picture: Supplied

The FESR story is etched in the hearts and minds of those who served.

As fresh-faced young sailors, they discharged tours of duty in equatorial conditions on warships more suited to operations in the North Atlantic.

Regardless of branch and campaign, service should always be tempered with pride and respect.

Sadly, many of those who participated in the Malayan Emergency, particularly in the Navy, have weathered their share of disappointment.

It took more than 50 years to re-open previously closed doors.

Yet despite success, the Malayan Emergency and Indonesian Confrontation are still overlooked at certain memorial functions and associated services.

The history of ADF service in the FESR theatre is a tapestry of well-documented political battles for recognition for medals, and other benefits which have taken years to resolve; some ongoing in 2021.

Those who served in the FESR, their widows and families deserve this pinnacle of recognition.

Les Bailey is president of the FESR War Memorial Foundation and a former navy CPOMTP.

This story Anzac Day | The forgotten heroes of the Far East Strategic Reserve deserve proper recognition first appeared on The Canberra Times.