British Tested the World’s First Hovercraft Technology in Tawau during Konfrontasi

This story is contributed by Mr. Gus Breymann who worked as a Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV) in Tawau during the mid 1960’s. Mr. Breymann is now based in Michigan, USA and wrote his experience in Tawau of which he described as “the town he had grown to love.”

The following is an excerpt from his article: A Sabah Sojourn. It tells a story about hovercraft technology which was a ground breaking technology back then was being experimented for the first time in Tawau. This is probably a story that most Malaysians never heard of. Please read on…

THE HOVERCRAFT EXPERIMENT

Military conflicts around the world have always provided opportunities to test new, experimental weapons under actual combat conditions. That was true during “Konfrontasi.” Within walking distance of my house in Tawau, the Royal Navy decided to field-test its SR.N5 air cushion vehicle, popularly known as the Hovercraft, for the first time in early 1965.

In fact, these tests were probably the very first military applications of air cushion vehicles anywhere in the world. Two early model Hovercraft were deployed in my town for many months and were being evaluated for coastal patrol and logistic support of Commonwealth troops on Sebatik Island and in the estuaries west of Tawau. Built by British Hovercraft, the SRN-5 (Saunders Roe Nautical-5) was powered by a single Rolls Royce turbine. It provided forward propulsion (via a large propeller mounted on the back of the craft) and downward air pressure which caused the machine to rise above the surface on its rubber skirts.

The SRN-5 taken in Tawau. Photo courtesy of Mr. Gus Breymann.

The SR.N5 appeared completely helpless when not in motion. It was like a duck sitting on a rubber nest—low, squat and motionless—on the narrow beach below the Tawau Resident’s home. When powered up, though, it was both fast and noisy. It carried about a dozen soldiers. Speed must have been the most redeeming feature of the Hovercraft. It could not have been stealth; it was far too noisy. As one or both of them skimmed across Cowie Bay, I could hear them approaching miles away. Not only was the Hovercraft noisy. It also had a distinctive sound unlike any aircraft or ship. Certainly the Indonesians must have identified them easily.

One day as I watched a football (soccer) game at the town padang, two American Navy officers approached me. That was a very strange occurrence because we never saw American military in Tawau. They were there to observe the use of the two Hovercraft in combat. We had a brief but pleasant conversation. They were just as surprised to see a Peace Corps Volunteer there as I was to see them.

Beginning in 1967, the U. S. Navy began using a slightly larger version of the Hovercraft, the SR.N6, in the Mekong Delta. I wondered whether its introduction into that much larger Southeast Asian war was an outgrowth, in part, of the military observers’ visit to Tawau a couple of years earlier. Later, in the Persian Gulf War, our Navy used behemoth relatives of the SR.N6 called LCACs (landing craft/air cushioned) successfully.

For all we know, this naval innovation got its start in a coastal town in Borneo.