Naik Sungai: The river war in Borneo
Landing in Borneo in 1945 as part of the Oboe series of operations the 7th and 9th Australian Divisions confronted an operational environment in which infrastructure was scarce. The main arteries of transport and commerce of inland Borneo were the rivers and thus the Australians in both British Borneo and at Balikpapan in Dutch Borneo found themselves conducting what was described by one historian as a ‘unique river war’. Accorded little consideration in the planning for Borneo, Australian riverine operations were ad-hoc and hampered by shortages of small craft and sometimes difficult relations with the supporting United States engineer boat and shore regiment. They do, however, serve as a case study of the adaptability of the Australian Military Forces to warfare in the environment of littoral South East Asia. They perhaps also offer insights as the contemporary Australian Army follows through on guidance in the 2016 Defence White Paper to re-establish a ‘riverine patrol capability’ to ‘allow mobility in a wide range of riverine environments’.
Dr Garth Pratten is the Acting Head of the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre (SDSC) and an historian of military operations. While living in Indonesia, he visited the sites of all the Oboe operations in Brunei, Malaysia and Indonesia. This experience led to the design of SDSC’s field study course ‘Exploring Operation Oboe’ which has thus far taken two groups of masters students to Borneo to examine the conduct, experience, and legacy of the Borneo campaign of 1945.
This SDSC War Studies Seminar was held on 21 October 2019, the seminar was chaired by Dr Jean Bou from the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, Coral Bell School.
Photograph courtesy of the Australian War Memorial (Australian infantry from the 2/9th Battalion move along the Riko River; Balikpapan, August 1945.)