Whirlwinds in a Forgotten War  

By By Andrew Drwiega, International Bureau Chief | October 1, 2013

Bristol Belvedere approaching mountain
base (Army Sioux on ground).

Photo by Mike McKinley

As a largely clandestine war in a far-off land, the Borneo campaign was one of the least discussed and written-about military actions post-World War II. Fought in the steamy jungles of Borneo from 1962-66, British and Commonwealth counter-insurgency (COIN) operations saw off the hostile forces of neighboring Indonesia. Key to that success was the emergence, for the first time, of helicopter support.

In the fallout from World War II, the British government supported the establishment of the Federation of Malaya in 1957. This was followed by the formation of the Federation of Malaysia in September 1963, combining the Malayan Federation with the British colonies of Sabah and Sarawak and Singapore (although the latter was to leave two years later).


The leader of Indonesia, President Sukarno, who had fought to rid his country of its Dutch colonial past (supported on occasions by the United States) now saw an opportunity to expand his territory by absorbing oil-rich Brunei, and then Sarawak and Sabah, through armed Konfrontasi. However, local support was patchy at best and over a number of years the British and their allies mounted a successful counter-insurgency campaign in a region with few roads, scattered populations and plenty of mountainous jungle. The difficult terrain and lack of roads leading to the border areas which were porous to the infiltration of Indonesian troops meant that the utility of helicopter operations not only in terms of troop lift and resupply, but also as a tool for winning over “hearts and minds” came into the spotlight for the first time.

Photo by Paul Logan

Gen. Sir Walter Walker, who was the director of operations in Borneo between 1962 and 1965, had gained experience of helicopter operations when he commanded British COIN forces during part of the Malayan Emergency (1948-60). He has been attributed as declaring that “a single battalion with six helicopters is worth more in the jungle than a whole brigade with none.”

Meet the Pilots

Earlier this year Roger Annett, the author of a new book entitled “Borneo Boys: RAF Helicopter Pilots in Action” invited Rotor & Wing to meet two of the pilots who flew in the undeclared war. They were Colin Ford and Mick Charles, both of whom operated one of the main helicopter types involved – the Westland Whirlwind HAR Mk10. The Whirlwind was a Sikorsky S-55 built under license by Westland Helicopters in the UK. It had a Rolls-Royce Gnome engine (again a license-built version of the GE T58 turbo shaft) and usually only a one-man crew – the pilot.

Ford and Charles, both in their early 20s on posting to Borneo, had learned their helicopter basics on the Bristol Sycamore at RAF Tern Hill in England. Said Ford of the Sycamore: “Some thought it was a bone shaker, but I thought it was a lovely aircraft because it had a good solid radial piston engine [the 550HP Alvis Leonides 73]. You could hear the revs and didn’t have to look at the gauge to see if they were right. It had all-manual controls and it vibrated – but we had a system where you could take most of the vibration out. We did 50 hours on that and then 50 hours on the Whirlwind Mk 10.”

Of their new Whirlwind helicopter, Charles added: “You expected to see the words Massey Ferguson on it [a world renowned tractor used in farming]. Everything was engineered big on the Whirlwind; big nuts and bolts – but it worked well.”

Photo by Fraser Skea

The path to becoming a helicopter pilot had not really been defined when both of the new pilots were considering their options. Most RAF trainees ended up going to the V-force, which was Britain’s strategic nuclear deterrent. The force comprised three types of aircraft, whose names all began with the letter V: Vickers Valiant, Avro Vulcan and the Handley Page Victor.

“It wasn’t a conscious decision to go on to helicopters it’s just that the only alternative was the V-force,” said Ford. “I volunteered to go to the (Vickers) Varsities, (Avro) Shackletons, (Blackburn) Beverlies [which were all fixed-wing] or helicopters. But helicopters hadn’t come into my vocabulary at that stage. Those who were already flying helicopters were Master NCO pilots and older officers – and in some cases those who were being ‘put out to grass’ [approaching retirement]. It was only with the advent of the confrontation in Borneo that the Air Ministry started thinking of bringing in new younger pilots like us.”

The “boys” said that up until that point, helicopters had mainly been an extension of the Mobile Army Surgical Hospital (MASH) casualty transports that made such an impression during their service in the Korean War (1950-53). However, the jungle war in Malaysia against the Communist Terrorists (CTs) had handed an early opportunity to British forces commanders to begin experimenting with helicopters and how they might be employed in more deliberate operations.

“Helicopter development after the war had been relatively slow with the Royal Navy getting most of the money as the RAF didn’t seem to be that interested,” said Charles. “It wasn’t until the Malay Emergency that they started.”

Map courtesy Crown

Moving onto the Westland Whirlwind was a step ahead for both pilots – although the avionics were still very limited when compared to the “glass cockpits” of today. “It had a better control system than we had flown before, a Mark 4 compass, but no avionics. The only people you could talk to [via the radio] were your colleagues, if they were fairly near. We only used VHF if we were going into a civil airfields and the only UHF we could use was a dial-up. So it was almost no more than a company net – 20 minutes out from base and there was nobody to talk to.”

“The Whirlwind could fly at up to 90 knots maximum but because it had hydraulic controls it was without feel,” said Ford. “You let go of the stick and it would fall into the nearest corner.”

Naming the ‘Junglies’

The British Royal Naval helicopters of today’s Commando Helicopter Force (CHF), part of the UK’s Joint Helicopter Command (JHC), are widely known throughout the services as ‘Junglies’ – not in respect of their paint scheme but because they earned the epithet conducting operations in support of RM commandos in Borneo.

Helicopter operations were difficult for numerous reasons. The heat, the dust and humidity were just the start of the day’s problems but were factors in limiting loads that could be lifted each day. There were not many accurate maps either as most were from World War II – rough charts with little detail.

“There were no navigation aids in the aircraft; you just had to use your airspeed indicator and a compass and learn the local features,” said Charles. “One thing we didn’t have to contend with was wind [except during monsoons] which made navigation much easier. If you wanted to go one way, then that is the way you went – there was never a 15-knot wind to contend with. You often discounted the wind at low level and flew the battle at treetop height.”

Pensiangan – Sabah jungle base.

Ford added: “You had some big mountains there; some were limestone outcrops and that was fine until the weather came down and all that disappeared. Then it became very interesting if you were still in the air. The first time that I went from Semado to Pensiangan, I was told you needed to hang a right and come over a saddle and then fly 10 miles across the big bowl. There were little holes in the saddle and you had to know without any doubt that you were going to reach one of the holes. When I flew out of Semado late one afternoon I found a stretch that pretty much turned into a ravine. I popped down into it, trusting to luck that I could make the corner. Then the cloud came down. I had to press on because I couldn’t turn around and by the skin of my teeth I just made it. I learned the importance of not becoming a bee in a bottle, unable to turn around and nowhere below to land.”

Other climactic factors included steam off the jungle, which was met after rainstorms at low altitude, and the way in which the night fell so quickly down there in the tropics.

Both pilots said that they gradually built up a knowledge base of the local geography, particularly rivers and mountain ranges. Although much of the role involved troop-carrying and resupply to known landing sites, many times the helicopters were called to insert or pick up troops from unknown sites or small clearings freshly cut out of the jungle by the army – just big enough to accommodate a Whirlwind.

“The driving force behind our operations was always the Army,” said Ford. “If they had their headquarters in a particular location and platoons out, they might push a patrol out to places that were not necessarily always held by our forces. We would operate to wherever they asked, sometimes six minutes away to a natural clearing or one that they had blown clear with explosive, or even a river bed. Then the risk changed; you had to fly with two pilots near the border, and with guns onboard.”

One of the main difficulties for the Army, however, was that they were required to place their ‘bid’ for helicopter support around 24 hours before they needed it. “By the time we pitched up to pick up 30 guys from A to B, their operational requirement had changed and it was now 20 guys from B to C and 15 guys from F to G. That meant re-planning not only the time available to do the task, but also the need to refuel during the operation,” explained Charles. And refueling was not the easy task it is today.

“You had set locations with fuel – the fuel was air-dropped in – and that was it. There was no diversion, no alternate, so you had to get back to the fuel dump. The way the terrain was mapped was eccentric. You’d have a line indicating a 4,000-foot ridge that might not be there – sometimes you had a river running through the ridge which was disconcerting to say the least.”

The British had not done much surveying of the area of operations and refueling was “a hell of a business,” according to Ford. The German-made Zwicky pump was used for emergency refueling. “We had to test it for water contamination first – and many pilots had to hand-pump their own fuel – around half an hour per drum,” remembered Charles. “The Whirlwind could take 1,450 lbs of fuel – that’s three-and-a-half drums to full tank. If you had the Zwicky – and hopefully someone from the army to help you out – you frequently squirted another 200lb of fuel into the tank (with rotors running) between hops from base to landing zone.”

Making the Difference

The Malaysia-Indonesia border in Borneo was long – over 1,000 miles – giving the advantage to Indonesian infiltrators, but the helicopters could react quickly and allow British and Commonwealth forces to leap forward to cut off retreating insurgents. They could also be sent to quickly lift in artillery support in the shape of 105mm howitzers – giving the Indonesians the impression that a greater mass of firepower existed than was actually the case.

Both Ford and Charles did a two and a half year tour of duty in Borneo. In contrast with the intense helicopter war that was fought a few years later in Vietnam, only around 75 helicopters were ever involved in the Borneo campaign. In addition to the RAF’s Whirlwind-equipped 103, 110 and 230 Squadrons, there were also the twin-rotor Bristol Belvederes of 66 Squadron, RAF. Alongside those were the Westland Whirlwinds and Wessexes of 845, 846 and 848 RN Air Squadrons, and 14 Flight of the British Army Air Corps, operating new Westland Scouts. Their contribution to what was a famous British and Commonwealth victory was immense. The Borneo Campaign saved the nascent Malaysia for its population, and led to its becoming one of the ‘tiger’ economies of SE Asia.

Note: “Borneo Boys: RAF Helicopter Pilots in Action, Indonesian Confrontation 1962-66” by Roger Annett is published by Pen and Sword Books Ltd,


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