Category Archives: history

RAAF Base at Butterworth’s Historic and Supportive Role

Lest we easily forget

Many young Malaysians may be unaware of the important and defining role played by the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) and its gallant airmen in Malaya, and later, Malaysia. When we progress as a nation and a people, it is always ever so crucial to know who were there to support and defend us when danger loomed on the horizon. In that respect, Malaysians should never forget the valuable services and sacrifices of the RAAF and its brave airmen.

What is the background to the involvement of the RAAF in this part of the world?

Only One Permanent Base Overseas

It is most interesting to know that the RAAF had an association stretching back to 1941! The RAAF Base in Butterworth was then used for care and maintenance purposes. The RAAF at some point during that period was the fourth largest air force in the world. Although the RAAF had some units based overseas, it had only one permanent base outside of Australia.

Butterworth in North Seberang Perai ( formerly known as Province Wellesley ) and within the state of Penang was chosen as the site for the RAAF Base. Although it was initially under the British, it was handed over to the Australians who managed the base. Later on, after we gained independence as a nation in 1957, it was technically jointly managed by both the RAAF and the Royal Malaysian Air Force (RMAF).

Butterworth had a population of some 11,000 residents in 1910, and a century later, its population swelled to some 800,000 plus residents.

Commonwealth Strategic Reserve

In the mid-1950s, Britain, Australia and New Zealand agreed to set up a Commonwealth Strategic Reserve in Malaya. The primary purpose of this Strategic Reserve was for countering a growing and menacing Communist threat in South East Asia. The prevailing theory pedalled at that time was the Domino Effect.  It was the assumption, for instance, that if Thailand fell, then soon Malaysia and Singapore too would fall to the Communists.

Initially, the RAAF Base in Butterworth had two squadrons of Sabre jet fighters, a squadron of Canberra tactical bombers and reconnaissance aircraft and a flight of Dakota transport aircraft. The RAAF Base commenced operations in June 1958.

At its peak strength during the 1970s, it had 1200 Australian personnel together with their families living on the island of Penang as well as in Butterworth. The RAAF Base, in addition, also employed another 1000 local Malay, Chinese and Indian support staff.

Extended Support during the Vietnam War

Unknown to most Malaysians at that time, the RAAF Base in Butterworth played a behind the scenes role in supporting a squadron that was deployed to Ubon, Thailand. The squadron played a pivotal role there along with medical and transport facilities during the Vietnam War.

Some senior citizens may well remember Harold Holt, the Australian prime minister at that time. Harold Holt gave tremendous, unstinting support to Lyndon Baines Johnson during the Vietnam War. Lyndon Johnson was then president of the United States.  What was Harold Holt’s infamous quote: ‘ All the way with LBJ ‘. Harold Holt later disappeared mysteriously when he went for a routine swim at a beach. His body was never found.

Crucial Role in Defending Malaysia

When Malaysia was formed with the merger of Malaya, Singapore, Sabah and Sarawak, the then fiery Indonesian president, made his displeasure and opposition to the idea publicly known. President Sukarno announced a Crush Malaysia campaign and proclaimed a period of Confrontation.

It was certainly a tense period for the new nation and things got much worse when over 100 plus Indonesian paratroopers were dropped into the state of Johor at the southern tip of peninsula Malaya. Thankfully, they were quickly rounded up.

The base, as such, was especially crucial between 1963 and 1966 during the period of Confrontation. The RAAF Base in Butterworth became the headquarters of the Integrated Air Defence System under the Five Power Defence Agreement. Its main role was to provide air defence for Singapore and Malaysia.

Australia’s Single Biggest Engagement with Asia

The RAAF Base in Butterworth was, without doubt, Australia’s single biggest engagement with Asia. Most young Malaysians may not know about this chapter in our infancy as a nation. But they should know and appreciate it because it is easy to gloss over, pretend otherwise and forget such matters.

The RAAF Base in Butterworth existed from 1955 to 1988. During that thirty-three year period over 50,000 Australians were based there together with their families.

It was Australia’s single biggest engagement with Asia.

Integrated Well with the Local Population

To their credit, the Australian airmen and their families integrated very well with Malaysians of all walks of life. I remember meeting a few of them in the mid-sixties mainly at social gatherings in Penang while I was training to be a certified teacher at St Joseph’s Training College ( STJC ), a La Salle institution in Pulau Tikus, Penang.

They were humble, friendly, socially adept and helpful. In that process, these Australians contributed to the rich, local social fabric of Penang society at that time.  To add to that unique cultural melting pot, we also had a steady infusion of lovely, young and fashionable Thai lasses from Bangkok and Phuket who trooped to Penang for classes in typewriting, stenography and secretarial studies.

George Town, Penang and Adelaide, South Australia: Sister Cities

Australia became increasingly connected to Asia and particularly to Penang and Malaysia I believe, to a great measure, because of their presence and contribution through the RAAF for over those thirty-three years.

It is still quite common to see many Australian families holidaying in Penang. For some, it is like a yearly pilgrimage to Shangri La, both literally and otherwise. For good measure, there are three well-known high-class Shangri-La hotel properties in Penang, two in Batu Feringgi and one in George Town.

In February 1973, the city of Adelaide, on the advice of the charismatic and forward thinking Don Dunstan (then premier of South Australia) proposed the establishment of a sister city (or twin cities) relationship with George Town, Penang.  Don Dunstan, you may be interested to know, actually married a Malaysian journalist named Adele Koh who hailed from Penang.

In December the same year, Dr Lim Chong Eu, a long-serving chief minister of Penang signed a sealed scroll attesting to this sister city arrangement. The sister city relationship has resulted in many enjoyable yearly programmes being hosted in both cities much to the satisfaction of the citizens.

Social History of RAAF Butterworth Base

KampongAustraliaBookDr. Mathew Radcliffe recently completed a fascinating social history of the RAAF Butterworth Base.

I am no historian but if what little I have shared has whetted your appetite for more on this unique history and contribution, do get his book, ‘Kampong Australia‘ which was published recently. (Read the Sydney Morning Herald review of the book).

Mathew was incidentally born at the RAAF Base in Butterworth and served in the RAAF for seven years.

He later went to university and completed a BA majoring in history before earning a Ph.D from Macquarie University.

Lest We Easily Forget

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