By Hector Donohue
The following description of a little known incident onboard Yarra during Confrontation is taken from the recently published book ‘United and Undaunted – the First 100 Years’, a history of Diving in the RAN 1911 – 2011, by EW Linton and HJ Donohue.
The Indonesia – Malaysia Confrontation (Konfrontasi) was fought from 1962 to 1966 between the British Commonwealth and Indonesia. Under President Sukarno, Indonesia sought to prevent the creation of the new Federation of Malaysia that emerged in 1963, whilst the British Commonwealth sought to safeguard the security of the new state. The conflict raged for more than two years along the borders between the two countries from Sebatik Island off the east coast of Sabah to Penang in the Malacca Strait. From Tanjong Datu at the western extremity of Sarawak to the Indian Ocean, this border was delineated on the sea.
Although Malaysia was a sovereign state, it was only months old at the time the Indonesians launched their attacks by land sea and air. Since Britain, Australia and New Zealand had defence agreements with the new federation, and had established bases in both Malaya and Singapore, it was the British who provided the leadership and a significant proportion of the forces engaged in repelling the Indonesians. Australia also played its part, with the air base at RAAF Butterworth near Penang providing air defence and maritime surveillance and the Australian infantry battalion and SAS troop at Camp Terendak near Malacca eventually committed to the land fighting in Borneo. But from Day One it was the ships and men of the RAN who were in the front line. Naval commitments included the destroyers and frigates assigned to the Far East Strategic Reserve, visits by the carrier HMAS Melbourne and HMAS Sydney on trooping voyages, but the major patrol and surveillance load fell on the small ships of the 16th Minesweeping Squadron.
The combined headquarters for Confrontation were established in Singapore, and command was delegated for all forces to the British Commander-in-Chief Far East. All RN, RAN and RNZN ships and personnel were under the operational command of the Commander Far East Fleet (COMFEF), with his headquarters in the extensive naval base on the northern coast of Singapore Island, reached via the Johore Strait. At one point, COMFEF had more than 80 ships under his command, ranging from aircraft carriers to patrol boats and submarines.
The comparative ease with which Indonesian infiltrators could, potentially, enter Singapore across the narrow Singapore Strait from the Indonesian Riau Archipelago, together with the existence of active anti-British and anti-Malaysian elements in the city, meant that the threat of attack on ships in the Naval Base and those moored in Johore Strait was commensurately high. While the landward approaches were secured and the water boundaries patrolled, assault by underwater swimmer was always possible. Under these circumstances, Commonwealth ships took precautionary measures – Operation Awkward, and the RAN deployed for the first time its Mobile Clearance Diving Team (MCDT) to Singapore.
Generally there was at least one clearance diver onboard each of the major fleet units deployed to Southeast Asia during the period. While the ships divers could undertake ships bottom searches, the CD was there to deal with anything found and provide experienced diving support. The RAN MCDT embarked in HMAS Melbourne in February 1965 to join with the RN’s Far East Diving Team, to assist in providing a ready reaction diving capability which might be required from RN or RAN units operating in the region.
On arrival, the integration of the RAN team with the British was accomplished quickly and with little difficulty, as both used similar methods and techniques. Located in the Naval Base, the combined group formed two teams to operate as directed by COMFEF. Principally, they maintained the capability of responding to underwater incidents in the vicinity of the base which were beyond the capabilities and experience of ships’ divers, such as the discovery of ordnance attached to hulls.
There was, however, a more serious incident in the frigate HMAS Yarra on the night of 4 June 1965 whilst berthed in the Stores Basin at the Naval Base. It was described as ‘the extraordinary affair of the missing diver’ in the frigate’s Report of Proceedings for that month. At the time Captain B H Loxton was in command with Lieutenant Commander J H Snow, the Executive Officer.
Yarra had closed up in modified Awkward State 3 at 1800 in accordance with the current practice and around 2100 the after sentry sighted bubbles aft. He reported to the Officer of the Day and a check was made of all underwater discharges which found that the bubbles did not emanate from the ship, and it was concluded the bubbles were from a diver using compressed air breathing apparatus. (Later that night a trial was carried out with a ships diver producing exactly the same effect.) At 2115, the forward sentry saw bubbles abreast the bridge. Grenades and scare charges were dropped at each of the forward and after areas and the bubbles ceased. The ship went to the highest state of watertight integrity and ships divers conducted a bottom search, but nothing was found.
The next morning the ship’s divers conducted a follow-up bottom search and on completion, two of the ships divers, EM C S Harkennes and ORD QMG D M Bowman, were instructed to carry out a sweep of the sea bed under the ship. At 0720 they surfaced and reported sighting the body of a diver dressed conventionally in a diving suit, face mask and underwater breathing apparatus. The body was resting on the bottom in a crouched-over position. No sign of life was evident. Bowman later said he thought there might have been a large explosive charge in the vicinity of the body. The ship then prepared to move with the aid of a tug. Some 20 minutes later divers re-entered the water in an effort to re-locate the body, but the tug closed the ship stirring up the water, and nothing was found.
The Royal Navy’s Far East Fleet Clearance Diving Team then took over the task. Despite three hours of searching they encountered nothing unusual. In the absence of anything being found, it was decided not to move the ship. One explanation for the absence of the body was the possibility that it had been propelled from under the ship into the Johor Strait after a tug sent to assist the relocation of Yarra used a ‘large amount of engine power’ in the adjacent water.
Meanwhile, both of the divers who had seen the body were closely questioned by the Diving Officer (Sub Lieutenant Don Chalmers) to confirm their initial report. Harkennes’s observations of the body over 90 seconds from about a metre away included a full description of the foreign diver’s dress and equipment. When asked was he certain he saw a dead human with diving gear he responded:
I am sure I saw a person with diving gear on; whether he was lying ‘doggo’ or dead I’m not certain, but it was definitely a human being. I came to the conclusion that he was dead because there was absolutely no movement and no bubbles.
Yarra in its signalled report immediately after the incident concluded that ‘After intensive investigation of my divers I consider they sighted a diver beneath Yarra and that diver was not of friendly origin’. Following a review of Yarra’s report on the incident in Navy Office, Commander MS Batterham (the RAN’s then diving expert) concluded that there was little doubt that the body of a diver was indeed sighted and in addition to the description of the equipment, the body in a sitting position fits with a still unexplained phenomena that in most underwater deaths the corpse assumes this rather lifelike attitude.
Intelligence advice issued in October 1964 included the warning: ‘It is known that an underwater sabotage frogman threat exists and that the Indonesians may demonstrate their capability shortly’. Thereafter the threat of underwater attack was considered to be real and preventative measures were taken seriously. From all the evidence available and particularly the statements from the divers, it would appear that there had been a diver under Yarra that evening, but in the absence of a body the identity could not be established. Needless to say, the two divers were unsettled by their experience.