The Australian – Malaya vets campaign on ‘war service’

The 9,000 men of Rifle Company Butterworth (RCB) are fighting to have their deployment and its risks recognised as warlike service.

EXCLUSIVE – PAUL MALEY 28th February 2020

 ‘We were put into harm’s way’: Ray Fulcher served in the Second Malayan Emergency

‘We were put into harm’s way’: Ray Fulcher served in the Second Malayan Emergency

The year is 1972 and Gough Whitlam is fulfilling an election pledge to bring home Australian troops from Vietnam, formally ending years of armed conflict with communist insurgents across Southeast Asia.

In northern Malaysia at the Butterworth Air Base, a small contingent of Australian servicemen still carry live rounds and patrol for communist guerillas they occasionally spy peering from jungles nearby.

“There was a Rifle Company Butterworth patrol that encountered a group of communist terrorists,’’ Ray Fulcher, chairman of the RCB review group, tells The Australian. “They went to ground but there was no shots fired.’’

Nearly 50 years on and the men of Rifle Company Butterworth are fighting to have their deployment and its risks recognised as a warlike service.

It has been a long, friendless fight. Official reviews have declined to upgrade their service, a move that would entitle them to a richer array of veterans’ benefits, including a much-prized Gold Card entitling them to a range of public and private healthcare services. It would also clear the way for RCB veterans to get the Australian Active Service Medal, the badge of honour bestowed upon all Australian personnel who served in “warlike’’ theatres.

Now they are passing the hat around to fund a Federal Court challenge they hope will see their status formally changed. To Mr Fulcher, as well as to other members of the RCB veterans’ community, it is a question of fairness.

“We were put into harm’s way to counter a threat in Malaysia and support them in their operations against communist terrorists,’’ Mr Fulcher said.

“They cannot renege now on their responsibilities, which is what they’re trying to do.’’

In nearly 20 years of service, RCB members never fired a shot in anger or had one fired at them. They suffered no combat casualties. The RAAF base they were sent to guard was never attacked. The base itself was a hangover from World War II.

So it is not hard to see why the Australian Defence Force has consistently refused to recognise deployment to Butterworth as warlike.

Yet the official designation of peacetime service doesn’t quite fit either. Soldiers on training deployments — notionally the reason the RCB was sent to Malaya — don’t pack live rounds. Nor was any training done.

“The government’s big thing is that we were training with the Malaysians,’’ Mr Fulcher said. “There were one or two who did, but that was later.

“There was no way we could train with the Malaysians — they were busy with their war.’’ That “war’’ was the decades-long conflict waged between the officially recognised government of Malaysia and the Malaysian Communist Party.

It was a simmering insurgency identical in type, if not in scale, to conflicts fought in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. Fifteen Australians died fighting in the First Malayan Emergency and 24 more were killed on active service.

By 1968, the communists had regrouped and launched a fresh offensive. The base at Butterworth, which had been transferred by the British to Australia in 1957, became a strategic outpost, a means by which Australia could project force into an increasingly unstable region.

Butterworth was the only airbase outside Australia where the RAAF maintained a permanent offensive presence.

Even now, Australian troops still rotate regularly through it. During the takeover by Islamic State of Marawi in the southern Philippines, the RAAF used Butterworth to send P-3 Orion spy planes to surveil the group.

In 2018, the government announced it would upgrade Butterworth to accommodate the new fleet of F-35 fighter planes.

During the 1960s, it served as a deterrent and a backstop to the Malaysian government. For this reason, Mr Fulcher thinks the 9000-odd servicemen who rotated through Butterworth from 1970-89 deserve recognition: “If the government sends people into harm’s way, that’s warlike service. If you send them somewhere where there’s a possibility they’ll be shot at, you owe them.’’

Mr Fulcher was there in 1979 when it was a fully fledged operating base, and a staging post for air combat missions flown by Malaysians against the communists.

RCBRG Comment

We thank Paul Maley for his article. In preparing the article we supplied relevant data months ago and he spoke with three of our Group separately in telephone conversations two days before its publication. We highlighted the two dominant issues that we were contesting:
Firstly, that the decision that RCB service was peacetime service similar to garrison duty in Australia and that the criteria for warlike service was met namely: a specific military objective; a specific area of operations; an enemy threat existed; there was an expectation of casualties; live ammunition was carried and that there were lethal rules of engagement.

Secondly, that the Government’s due process in handling our grievance was not applied in a fair manner. 14 years of effort by the RCB Group to exercise its right to the truth and its right to challenge the decision have been met with a Government process that is blatantly unfair.

The article fails to consider the strategic context of security threats from communist expansion (The Domino Theory) in SEA and our strategic Alliance under the Five Power Defence Arrangement with the vital role that the RAAF, deployed at Air Base Butterworth (ABB), had in providing a deterrent to further Communist aggression in South East Asia beyond the 1960s he writes of “During the 1960s, it served as a deterrent and a backstop to the Malaysian government.” Our Alliance continued through the Malaysian Emergency War 1968 -1989 and still exists today.

It does not report that the genesis of the RCB deployment was the outbreak of Malaysia’s Insurgency War in 1968 against a resurgent communist terrorists and the Australian Government’s decision Defence Committee Minute (Secret) 2/73 to protect the RAAF Assets at ABB against the threat. In that Minute it records: “This (deployment) could be presented publicly as being for training purposes”. Herewith is the deception of the true RCB’s warlike service that meets the criteria.

The article does not report our request for an independent of government judicial enquiry.

However a positive from Paul Marley’s article is that it does expose the matter to the Australian people. Our challenge is to build on that entry with our own troops and supporters in direct action campaign in the field.

It is a pity that Paul did not check his “facts” with us before publishing.


  1. Warren Feakes says

    I think the term “Second Malayan Emergency” is totally incorrect.

    If it was indeed an “emergency” it was the first for Malaysia, and therefore the “First Malaysian Emergency”

    The Malay(an) Emergency as it was known, lasted from 1948 to 1960 . On 31 August 1963, North Borneo and Singapore were granted self-governance and all states formed Malaysia on 16 September 1963.

    All after that was “Malaysia”

  2. Con O'Shea says

    Without Prejudice
    C.J. O’Shea
    Mortar Platoon, Support Comp, 8RAR
    Dear Mr Fulcher
    Recently I came across an article from the Rifle Company Butterworth, in it you state that the personnel that served there between 1070-89 have their service recognised as warlike and therefore be awarded the AASM.
    In the article you state the communists re-grouped and launched a fresh offensive in 1968.
    Seeing 8RAR was there between 1967-69, I wonder why you didn’t included us as co-applicants, Not so much a claim for the AASM but for the Malaysian Service Medal (PJM) or at the very least the GSM.
    This is the second time this has come up, the first in 2011.
    Don’t you think we should all be honoured?
    After reading your one liners in your letter, I don’t think whey will carry much sway because under Schedule 2 of the VEA Act, we are not classified as “Veterans” or as “A member of the forces ” gazetted 1.11.2013, by the Repatriation Commission. I tried to find out what our classification was but received no answer.
    I tried to explain to them that ops we did on the Thai border as late as 1968 were still extremely hazardous and not good for the health.
    We used to think of it as the “Principle of Incurring Danger”, but it fell on deaf ears.
    I think you have to rethink your strategy Ray, or it will be 2011 all over again. Is the RARC still backing you, because if they are, we should be included.
    Take this email as an observation not a criticism Ray and think of us as part of the brotherhood too. Aim a bit lower and you might get results.
    All the best mate
    Kindest regards
    Con O’Shea

    • Warren Feakes says

      Hi Con, Yes, I went with the “8th of Foot” on Sir Lancelot to Malaysia in September 1967. I was a 107 Field Battery FOO.
      #Patrolled the beaches with live ammo,
      #Guarded the MQ in Tampin during the 68 riots with live ammo,
      #Escorted the AUSEMB staff in KL back and forth to work in the 68 riots
      #Deployed with 1st/2nd Gurkha Rifles in Brunei in 67 (live ammo) after KSLI left for Mauritius to handle the dissident riots (I was kitted up and almost went there with them but was stopped by AUSEMB Signal as about to board aircraft at Seletar in Singers.)
      RTA September 1969.
      I would like another gong too but it would cost me a motza to re-court mount what I have already
      Second Malaysian Emergency?? Pfffttt!

  3. I served at RCB in 1975 shotly after the fall of South Vietnam. I clearly remember the rules of engagement SHOUT STOP THREE TIMES OPEN FIRE THAT IS (BEHENTY BEHENTY BEHENTY FIRE) pn where in 14 years in Australia did I carry live and blank ammo together on exercise except Malaysia

  4. Peter Kelly says

    As one of the three interviewed for Paul Maley’s article, I can tell you he used almost nothing I provided him e.g. the comparison between RCB and Ubon/Diego Garcia, the fact that some senior officers (who never served at RCB) accepted the Malay PJM award for the Second Malayan Emergency on behalf of all 9,000 who actually served there, yet the government does not recognise the conflict ever took place…. and so on.