The perceived threat to South-East Asia from China dominated Western defence planning in the early 1950s. The initial concern was to bolster the French in Indochina, then to take account of their defeat and withdrawal following the battle of Dien Bien Phu in Vietnam in May 1954. To bolster the regional front New Zealand signed the Manila Pact in September 1954, along with Australia, France, the Philippines, Pakistan, Thailand, the UK and the US. This created the South East Asia Treaty Organisation (SEATO), based in Bangkok, to plan the defence of South-East Asia.
Commonwealth strategic reserve
The British meanwhile had formed the Commonwealth Far East Strategic Reserve, initially to defend Malaya. In 1955 New Zealand agreed to send its forces to South-East Asia rather than the Middle East in the event of war and to contribute forces to the reserve in peacetime. The Royal New Zealand Air Force’s 14th Squadron, which had been based in Cyprus, was moved to Singapore, along with the 41st Squadron RNZAF and a naval frigate. A 130-man Special Air Service (SAS) squadron (replaced by a 750-man regular infantry battalion in 1957) was sent to Malaya.
These deployments marked a shift of focus in New Zealand from citizen-soldier forces enlisted and trained at the time of an emergency to regular, trained and ready-to-go forces. Forward defence in Asia became the basis of New Zealand’s defence strategy.
The Commonwealth reserve forces became the foundation for initial British, New Zealand and Australian contributions to planned SEATO operations. Although none of these plans would ever be implemented, New Zealand’s SAS and part of the 41st Squadron were deployed to Thailand for several months in 1962 in a SEATO response to the communist insurgency in Laos.
In Malaya, New Zealand’s forces in the Commonwealth reserve were stationed in an area subject to communist insurgency. Following the Second World War, communist guerrillas, mainly ethnic Chinese, had challenged British rule. In 1948 the British responded by declaring a state of emergency, and began a 12-year military campaign to eliminate the ‘communist terrorists’.
New Zealand involvement
New Zealand first assisted in this campaign in 1949. Transport aircraft of a 41st Squadron flight deployed in Singapore (in response to the threat posed to Hong Kong by the Chinese communist victory) were used in supply drops to troops hunting the guerrillas in the jungle, from 1949 to 1951. About 40 New Zealanders served in the Fijian infantry battalion that operated in Malaya between 1951 and 1956.
New Zealand units of all three armed services forming part of the strategic reserve from 1955 were also allowed, as a secondary task, to take part in Malayan Emergency operations. This included ground patrolling, supply dropping and shore bombardment. By the time the emergency was declared over in 1960, 15 New Zealanders had lost their lives in combat or accidents.
Stan McKeon, commander of the 12th Platoon Delta Company, remembered, ‘On Peter Sullivan’s first patrol, one of his men caught his foot in a vine across a track. This jerked a grenade out of a hole and there was a dive for cover but no explosion. A very game soldier investigated and found the striker mechanism had jammed. He also found another grenade in a lethal state in a hole on the other side of the track. Thereafter there was a grave suspicion of vines on tracks.’1
New Zealand forces in South-East Asia became involved in another decolonisation-related conflict in the 1960s. This stemmed from Indonesian President Sukarno’s declaration of a policy of confrontation (in Indonesian, Konfrontasi) against the Federation of Malaysia, formed in 1963.
New Zealand’s battalion in Malaya fought Indonesian incursions on the Malay peninsula in 1964. It was later deployed to Borneo, along with the SAS squadron. The 41st Squadron supported the troops from Singapore. These forces engaged in limited operations, including some into Indonesian territory, in 1965–66. There were no New Zealand fatalities in this conflict, which ended in 1966 following a military coup in Indonesia.