2ACS BUTTERWORTH MALAYA
Extract from the book Always First by David Wilson
On 1 April 1955, Prime Minister Robert Menzies announced that, an Australian force would be committed to the Commonwealth strategic reserve in the Far East established to deter and counter communist aggression. The RAAF contribution to the strategic reserve was to be a composite wing of two Sabre fighter squadrons and a single squadron of Canberra bombers, with logistic and administrative support provided by a Headquarters, Base Squadron, and Maintenance Squadron. The force was based at the RAF airfield at Butterworth on the north west coast of Malaya. This facility was made available as a free loan from the United Kingdom Government, with the Australian Government assuming responsibility for its maintenance and subsequent upgrading. Although the RAF had undertaken some work to bring the Butterworth airstrip up to jet standards, much more work was required before the airfield would be fit to operate Sabres and Canberra’s on a permanent basis. No.2 Airfield Construction Squadron was allotted this task.
Wing Commander A.G. Wilson welcomed the advance party of 2ACS, Flying Officer D.W. Jacob and 30 other ranks, to Butterworth on 8th July 1955. This group had departed from Townsville by air two days earlier, and immediately commenced work on clearing sites for the unit technical, equipment, and domestic quarters preparatory to the arrival of the first echelon of the main party on 11th August. Wing Commander Lings arrived on 13th August to assume command of the Squadron from Jacobs. The Tyalla commenced unloading the unit's heavy equipment at Penang on 19th August. It was not until 12th September that the main party arrived aboard the New Australia.
In October excavation of the southern extension of the north south runway commenced. Lings described the construction difficulties:
... the terrain was extremely difficult. It was all rice paddy field which is 14 or 15 feet [4.5 metres] deep in mud ... the topsoil vegetation had to be removed in the first instance. All of the topsoil ... had to be excavated and transported away and dry fill ... brought in until we had the right ... depth ... of stabilised ... soil on which we built the runway. The runway at Butterworth was constructed in concrete and we [used]... pavement laying equipment which was operated on a continuous basis. Once it was started it had to be continually utilised twenty four hours a day ... the concrete pavement was reinforced with steel
The fill was retrieved from granite quarries at Bukit Guar Ipoh 18 kilometres from Butterworth. The Bakit Mertajam area in which the quarry was located was declared `black' an unsafe area due to the activity of communist terrorists (CTs), who had commenced a campaign of terror to free Malaya from Great Britain in 1948. During October, guards armed with Sten guns and in two way radio contact with Butterworth were established at the site. The quarry was surrounded by barbed wire, declared a protected area during November, and remained so until the local CTs surrendered on 9th December. The guard was reduced accordingly, but the threat of the CTs presence in other areas was still real. For example, during June 1956 two armed convoys transported explosives from Taiping and Prai to Butterworth. An armoured car was employed as part of the Taiping convoy escort.
The squadron had been at Butterworth for three months before the first families arrived. On 26 October 1955 families arrived in a Qantas DC 4 from Australia. By the end of March 1956 all those members entitled to be accompanied by their families overseas had been found a married quarter at Penang or Butterworth. Most married quarters were located on Penang Island, which was linked to the mainland by ferry. The squadron was working a full 24 hour day and this placed pressure on personal relations; Lings recalls that there were a `few misdemeaning young wives [that we had to] ... send them back to Australia, which was not a very pleasant thing to do'. The raising of the Garrison Club for RAAF and Army other ranks in Penang gave a social outlet to members on the island. Another less reputable source of entertainment was the City Lights and Piccadilly dance halls, where many a young airman was led astray. However, there were less erotic means of pleasure. Rugby became a popular sport (the squadron Rugby team was a major force in the local competition, and the building of Gwen 12 sailboats gave a nautical air to relaxation. The provision of volleyball and basketball courts added to the physical challenges offered to members of the squadron. One of the more exciting `sports', which took place during April 1956, was reminiscent of the Raj in India or the legendary Great White Hunter, Frank Buck a search for a `rampaging tiger' reported in the 2ACS area. Enthusiasts from Penang organised a hunt, which resulted in the `shooting of a black panther a few [kilometres] from the Station'.
John Lessels recalls another incident involving animals `Nobby' Ling's pet gibbon monkey who had lascivious eyes on the squadron's mongrel dog mascot. It was during 1957 that Nobby handed over temporary command of the unit to Wing Commander George Purdy whilst undertaking medical treatment. The gibbon decided that master away he would play. As Lessels continues: ... the monkey got off its chain, wrecked the CO's office, and leapt onto the back of the mascot ... I heard shrill barking as though a dog was having its throat cut. On walking out of the office the scene was unbelievable. The monkey with one hand was grasping the dog by the scruff of the neck, and the other was holding the dog's genitals. The monkey had a leer, if not a grin, of unbounded satisfaction. All its anticipations and hopes had been fulfilled. The dog displayed unmitigated anguish. The faster the dog ran, the tighter the monkey's grip. The tighter the grip, the faster the run. It seemed like perpetual motion had been achieved! They shot through the drawing office, which was next to mine; plans went flying, and then through my office to the soils
laboratory, only to disappear out onto the construction project. I was never certain at the finish what happened at the end of the tail!
Travel from Penang was eased when two coaches were provided in April 1956, thus enabling a schedule to be followed which took into account the squadron shift times. These vehicles were maintained on the island by a small administrative staff established for this purpose and to pay married member's servants and other routine matters. In general, the relations between the Australians and the indigenous Malay, Chinese and Indian population were friendly; in January 1956 a member of 2ACS announced his engagement to a Eurasian girl. Despite the general tolerance of the Australians by the Malay population, Butterworth and other Service establishments were closed over the three main days of celebrations marking `merdeka', the declaration of the independence of Malaya on
31st August 1957.
The construction of the main runway was tardy due to the delay in acquiring land required for the northern runway extension. In July 1956 discussions with the Province Wellesley Senior District Officer were arranged to expedite the matter. During September, as a result of constant pressure, access was granted to the land along the planned centre line of the runway extension. The land acquisition program was finalised during the following month, and the construction continued at a steady rate. Contracts had been let to Chinese contractors by the Public Works Department for the supply of crushed rock from the Guar Ipoh quarry, but there was a serious shortfall in deliveries from that source in November. The deficiency was overcome and the work progressed with intermittent delays caused by seasonal weather and the non availability of equipment. However, on 20th March 1958 a British Valiant bomber landed on the new north south runway, to become the first `V' bomber to operate from the strip. The effort of 2ACS had been vindicated; `the runway, taxiways, fighter and bomber hardstands being available for operational use on 23rd May 1958 one month ahead of schedule'.
On 15th April 1958 a Qantas DC 4 arrived for the first party of 2ACS personnel to be repatriated. The final aircraft assigned to fly members back to Australia took off from Butterworth on 20th August. The affairs of the unit at Butterworth were finalised during October and the Squadron took residence at the RAAF base at East Sale, Victoria.
The Butterworth deployment was the last undertaken by 2ACS. It was the lot of 5ACS to supply personnel for the three final overseas deployments by Airfield Construction Squadrons at Ubon in Thailand, and Vung Tau and Phan Rang in South Vietnam.