A STATION COMMANDER’S VIEW of RAF Seletar
Marshal Sir Robert Freer
I am going to take you swiftly at least 400 miles behind the lines and you can hardly get more safe than that. Sir David Lee wrote in his book about the few quiet years which followed the long Malayan emergency. With exquisite timing, the Air Secretary posted me to command Seletar as the quietness came to an end. I arrived in August 1963, a little late on parade if one takes the Brunei rebellion as the end of peace, but in time for Confrontation proper. Seletar was a major departure from Freer’s previous experience. From being a fighter boy I found it still had flying boat slipways and, in addition to SRT, MRT and helicopters, housed a multiplicity of other squadrons and units, none of which had anything to do with the fighter world. Indeed after passing through the rather distinctive gateway into Seletar, one entered a new world in RAF base terms. It was a truly mixed bag and just grew and grew during Confrontation until it embraced a total population, including dependents, of some 15,000 people.
The first unusual feature was finding an Asian village of some 2,000 souls on the base housing many of our locally recruited employees. Taking pride of place, of course, among our lodger units was the AOC and Headquarters 224 Group. You could say that this tended to concentrate the mind of a newly promoted and appointed Station Commander. Allow me to remind you at this point that if you are to have your boss working on your patch he should, if possible, be one who gives you clear, well informed direction at the outset, followed by timely advice and solid support along the way, and then leaves you alone to get on with the job. At Seletar we were blessed with an AOC who scored, if I may say so, a maximum on all counts. The proximity of the Group staff became accordingly a distinct advantage as opposed to the reverse.
Singapore was an interesting, stimulating and potentially pleasant posting for most people. There was an exciting strangeness about the island, it was colourful, multi-cultural, the sun shone a lot and everyone, irrespective of rank, could live it up a little. But there were pitfalls for the uninitiated and new arrivals had to be fairly carefully briefed. For the moment I would just emphasise the contrast which existed between the sunny social life in and around Singapore and the tough and rather dangerous life in the forward areas of Borneo. It was not a contrast to which everyone was exposed, but it certainly became the routine lot for Seletar’s aircrews and for the RAF Regiment and the RCT operating on the main forward bases at Labuan and Kuching. I was happily privileged myself to partake of the mixture and stimulus from time-to-time but there were days when a Station Commander could not sensibly absent himself for very long. He could however get a feel for jungle bashing and we Station Commanders, Gp Capts Brian Bennett, Ted Hawkins and myself, did just show willing. But for most of the time I have to confess I lived on base at Seletar, slumming at No 1 Park Lane.
I should make it clear that Singapore was not wholly a holiday camp. Those who worked on the island and enjoyed its amenities actually worked harder perhaps than they had ever worked before. Moreover they did from time-to-time emulate their colleagues in Borneo by dealing firmly and successfully with those Indonesians who thought there were easy pickings in invading the Malayan mainland by sea and air.
Let me say a little more about my polyglot empire at Seletar. Actually I think that ‘Commonwealth’ might be a better description because a large part of the station consisted of lodger units not under my command. But be they RAF, Army or Navy, the lodgers all subscribed willingly to an ‘all of one company’ approach to living and working on the base. It made Seletar a reasonably happy place to serve and I suspect that sharing one huge Officers Mess and the running of it played no insignificant part in it all. There isn’t even time to mention all the lodger units. I have a note somewhere there were 26 at the peak. The principal lodgers were the Maintenance Units. 389 was the main equipment base for the whole of the Far East Air Force. They certainly stocked as much as they could of everything from clothing to furniture to vehicles, munitions and aircraft. The same applied to 390 MU under Bill Dainty and then Keith Jarman, who had to provide all the deep servicing back-up to some 17 different types of aircraft in use by FEAF and Army units in the theatre. The growth in size and complexity of Seletar brought with it also a number of administrative problems. Accommodation was one. A large number of dependents had to be housed off-base and away as it were from ‘mother’.In the very different environment of Singapore, Service personnel and their families required many additional auxiliary services to be provided and on a scale well beyond what might normally suffice in Europe. Our inflated station admin establishment reflected this.
The base was divided into an East and West camp by the only runway – long enough, as you heard, to satisfy SRT & MRT but definitely a bit sporty for anything else, unless very lightly loaded, and generally in that case on its way to 390 MU. Base population and geography required many facilities to be provided in both camps, notwithstanding an on-camp bus service. Major efforts, for example, had to be made to provide adequate schooling for a very large number of children of all ages. We had four schools on the base, kindergarten, infant, junior and secondary, and this did not include the children living in our Asian village who were educated off-base. Another important item, obviously, was medical support and Wing Commander Eddy Ward had some eight or more doctors to help him oversee clinics on and off-base. We also assigned an MO to each flying squadron to encourage more personal liaison with the aircrew. Except for the unwise or careless, health was reasonably good – young wives off-base perhaps requiring more attention and understanding than most other categories.
Taking a certain amount of exercise also helped, and nowhere in the world were there better facilities for all ranks to indulge in the sport of their choice. We had a good golf course on the base and a super swimming pool complex and probably one of the best yacht clubs in the Far East. There is no time to dwell on all the facilities available, but they were a great prop tomorale. Among the numerous clubs, one of the most outstanding was the Theatre Club. It was highly professional and claimed by Freddy Westcott tobe one of the best drama clubs in South East Asia; he was probably right.
Youth activities abounded and welfare issues permeated every aspect of life in Singapore. Never was it more true to say that happy wives make for a happy unit or station. So from the outset I encouraged them to look after their own as far as they could. In practice there was a marvellous small station spirit in our large commonwealth of units. There was never-failing emergence of talent and willingness on the part of all ranks to cover the non-established and extra-mural commitments and those activities which contributed to so much to what was high morale.
To encourage and reward all those who distinguished themselves in the life of the base I instituted the Station Commander’s Award. This was small beer in itself but it got the recipients, sometimes a husband and wife, a full page write-up in the station newspaper and a suitably inscribed station plaque. The newspaper incidentally was a quality monthly production running to some 16 pages and it did much to create a togetherness among the many disparate units and organisations at Seletar including the Asian population.
Before leaving the admin/welfare issues let me just mention our two bands. You will agree with me I am sure, that a band is a jewel in any station’s crown. Two bands is icing on the cake and with one of them a pipe band we had, as it were, lift-off on any and every occasion. I also discovered incidentally that nearly every territory in the Far East at the time had a Scots governor.
Now to operations. The modus vivendi for Seletar’s squadrons was straight forward enough in principle. At Seletar we were a massive resource and training centre and we sent forward some 400 to 800 miles those capabilities required by COMAIRBOR and the Forward Air Commander in Borneo. As Confrontation got under way, Seletar aircraft of all types were always present in Borneo.
If we take the Beverley first, what a horse for a course this was. To an ex-fighter boy it seemed like something out of the Ark, but as Noel Bennett, who commanded 34 Squadron, will tell you it was a superb supply dropper in the special circumstances of Borneo. It attracted great loyalty from its crews and I personally enjoyed flying it enormously, especially in Borneo – under expert supervision of course. The Bev was not only FEAF’s heavyweight load carrier, it was also a tail loader and more flexible probably than the side loaders. It could toss out a ton at a time which amongst other things was more economical on parachutes, and parachutes in fact, became a critical factor. There was, as you can imagine, a high wastage rate, greater than the UK rate of supply, so packing and repair, which was all carried out at Seletar, became a high priority task. This is perhaps a convenient point to mention 3 AASO headed by Lt Col Peter Bainbridge at Seletar and with 55 Air Dispatch Squadron and 21 Air Maintenance Platoon RAOC under command. They really were a vital part of the transport support and supply dropping operations. In July ‘65 they were renamed the Royal Corps of Transport and they carried on doing the same jobs; they had detachments virtually everywhere.
On now to the SRT force of Single and Twin Pioneers of 209 Squadron under Sqn Ldr Cecil Crook. The ‘Single Pin’ was a high wing monoplane with an excellent short field performance – better in fact than the Auster and with a much better load. It was particularly suitable for ops in Malaya and Borneo and, with its variant the ‘Twin Pin’, complemented the helicopter force. Apart from the excellent work they did in their own right, the Pioneers helped reduce the distances over which the helicopter had to operate and this was a major plus. My own most memorable experience ofa ‘Single Pin’, incidentally, was landing on HMS Albion in August ‘65 to take breakfast with Capt John Adams, now Rear Admiral (Rtd). I think he would have retired earlier after seeing us approach.
I must move on quickly and briefly to the helicopter force. Some would say this was Seletar’s most singular contribution to the Confrontation campaign. The helicopter had begun to come of age as a result of the Malayan Emergency but the impetus given by the Borneo operation to theimportance of the helicopter can scarcely be exaggerated. Starting at the top, as it were, it provided the CinC, or Air Commander, Sir Peter Wykeham, with his most effective mode of transport both in working hours and when making a late join up with a weekend boating party. The Sycamore really did a good job.
The helicopter wing did not exist when I arrived at Seletar. However early on I felt that OC Flying Wing, Peter Walker, already had enough on his plate and moreover, like me, knew little about helicopters. To get the best out of our three helicopter squadrons and to provide them with expert supervision and co-ordination required in my view a wing organisation. Happily this was agreed and the obvious man for the job was already on the station in the post of OC Admin Wing. It was John Dowling no less, who was at the time just about the RAF’s ‘Mr Helicopter’. Thewing organization quickly took shape and soon justified itself, overseeing standards and categorisation, supervising the in-theatre training of reinforcements from the UK and, not least, seeking out early solutions to any operational problems which arose. The heavily committed and widely dispersed helicopter squadrons welcomed the support which the wing headquarters provided. As John Dowling describes it in his book, the situation was rather like Odiham squadrons having detachments as far apart as Aberdeen, Hamburg and Oslo. As well as asking for an OC helicopter wing I also made a plea for as much quality as possible when the Air Sec posted chaps to the helicopter force. Confrontation clearly was going to be an invaluable opportunity for some promising young officers to cut their teeth on real live helicopter operations and in circumstances where there would be unusual opportunities for relatively junior officers and aircrew to exercise leadership, command and control. My elders and betters obviously had their fingers on the pulse and the right people duly appeared, for example John Price who came out to command 110 Sqn.
Without squadrons like 110 the life of the troops in Borneo, would have been virtually impossible. Movement over any distance was really only possible by river or by air. Unfortunately rivers don’t always flow in the required direction and when they do, many would take the air route anyway. For anyone who has experienced a power canoe ride Borneo style, as I once did, like Larry Lamb, up the Rajang rive to Nanga Gaat, it was something to savour as a one-off as opposed to the routine.The fast moving rivers in Borneo carry a pretty lethal load of debris and avoiding tree-size floating logs does get the adrenaline going a bit. Nanga Gaat, which seems to be the popular site today, was a very interesting base located in the fork where the Rajang and Baloe rivers joined. The landing pads were carved out of the steep river banks, giving the whole camp a terraced farming appearance. It was not a five-star location, nor on the other hand bereft of amenities. One of John Price’schaps had produced a hot water shower system using 44 gal kerosene drums. It was a work of art and contributed to a very respectable standard of mass undress in the riverside mess. However, my parting memory of Nanga Gaat struck a more sombre note for the helicopter load the next day was wrapped in a body bag.
So much for the Whirlwinds. The third helicopter squadron was our heavy lifter already mentioned: the Belvedere under first Peter Sawyer and then Bunny Austin. They did a marvelous job. Like the Whirlwinds, 66 Sqn worked in the troop-carrying and supply role but came into its own when awkward loads had to be moved and it scored very much in being able to position, for example, the 105 mm gun. The Belvedere had been in at the start of the Brunei rebellion in ‘62 and by the time the squadron received its standard in May 1964 it had already lifted some 10,000 troops and a million pounds of freight to and from jungle locations.
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