Boles Collection 3: Royal Marines Manoeuvres, British North Borneo 1961

This film is held by the British Empire & Commonwealth Museum (ID: 2001/094/003).


This film includes footage of Kuta Belud airstrip, Kinabulu Mountain, extensive manoeuvres of the Royal Marines in Sabah, and scenes of local people. Some film is shot from a helicopter.

Production / Donor Details: Sir Jack Boles worked in administration in North Borneo and then Hong Kong, from 1948 until 1964. This is part of a collection of four 8mm. silent films taken by him during 1960 and 1961.



Decolonisation in South East Asia was intimately bound up with American activities in the immediate area (most notably the Vietnam War) and the US was closely aware of the implications of British withdrawal from the region. As Wm. Roger Louis has noted, by the late 1960s the Americans, largely isolated over their prosecution of the conflict in Vietnam, could even complain that the British were abandoning an important Cold War duty by concluding commitments east of Suez. Dean Rusk, US Secretary of State, stated in 1968 that the end of Empire in South-East Asia and the Middle East amounted to ‘a catastrophic loss to human society’ (Louis, 2006, 558). While there had long been Anglo-Russian, and indeed Anglo-Soviet face-offs and intrigues in the East, the emergence of the People’s Republic of China and the intensification of the Cold War decisively recast the dismantling of the eastern Empire as anti-Communist manoeuvring with broader ramifications. The UK was inevitably involved in US activities, despite strained relations with the US during the 1950s and 1960s, principally from fallout from Suez in the wider context, but also due to differing UK-US attitudes toward the containment of China and UK disapproval of US military activity in Asia.

It was such nominally joint Anglo-American concerns that lay behind the setting up of the short-lived and perhaps ill-conceived South East Asian Treaty Organization (SEATO). Signed in 1954, the treaty ostensibly committed the UK, the US, France, Australia, New Zealand, Thailand, the Philippines and Pakistan to mutually defend one another in the event of hostile attack. However, the treaty was beset by problems, proved effectively non-binding due to requirements for unanimity, and served to focus Asian nationalist discontent on an institution perceived as a ‘another example of the West’s desire to establish the framework for how independent nations should order their external relations’ (Jones, 2002, 8; for a detailed history of SEATO see Buzynski, 1983. The text of the treaty is available at

From the British perspective, SEATO membership certainly mollified the Americans somewhat, a concern particularly important to the Prime Minister Harold Macmillan in the aftermath of the Suez debacle; however, this largely symbolic positive was balanced against the problems it caused. Quite aside from the possibility that Britain might end up embroiled in an American war, in the context of decolonisation, membership of the group was generally in contradiction with Britain’s hope to ‘appeal to moderate and non-aligned Asian nationalism’ (ibid.), and it seems that the general position may have been that SEATO membership was considered something of a liability from this point of view (Tarling, 1993, 181-3).

SEATO membership however broadly dovetailed with the British concern that the independent governments that took control in ex-colonies should be generally anti-Communist and preferably pro-British, an outcome which was a crucial goal during the winding down of the Empire almost everywhere.

Britain’s major objective in South-East Asia towards the end of the 1950s and the start of the 1960s was to negotiate the path from the independence of Malaya in 1957 to the creation of a federal Malaysia in 1963 through the incorporation of Singapore, Sarawak, Brunei and Borneo. In so doing, not only would the problem of completing South-East Asian decolonisation be solved as the remaining Malay states were absorbed into the federation, but also a friendly bulwark would be erected against Communist influence, and the danger of Chinese influence in Singapore neutralised.

The British Government was committed to pushing this scheme through from 1958 onwards, and the Malayan Prime Minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman (‘the Tunku’), declared in favour of federation in May 1961. There was however considerable opposition to the plan. Oil-rich Brunei was wary of having its revenues co-opted by Kuala Lumpur (it eventually declined to join), and the British Governor of under-developed Sabah (British North Borneo), Sir William Goode, was reluctant: ‘suspicious both of federations in general and of the Tunku’s intentions,’ Hyam reports that he ‘[complained] darkly that Borneo had already once been “steam-rollered”, by the Japanese’ (Hyam, 2001, 294). According to Louis, the Colonial Office also took a dim view of Borneo’s inclusion, feeling that ‘the peoples of Borneo were being compelled to join before they were ready to determine their own future’ (Louis, op.cit., 570). The incorporation of Borneo would also trigger a counterclaim by the Philippines, and the scheme as a whole provoked a dangerous challenge from Indonesia (the ‘Confrontation’). Nevertheless, federation went ahead (though without Brunei), and Malaysia came into being in September 1963. 



The four reels that comprise the Boles collection were shot in Sabah during 1960 and 1961 by Sir John (Jack) Dennis Boles (b.1925), who worked for the British colonial administration in the territory from 1948-64. The films show various scenes from the Boles’ family daily and home life in the colony, and also include a long sequence of military manoeuvres and activities, some of which is shot from a helicopter. The extract presented here shows a significant naval presence just offshore, and an amphibious beach landing by troops who are seen running up the beach and into the jungle. 

Several shots of a US-marked Kaman Husky helicopter confirm that much of this footage shows American Marines, and it is therefore likely that the footage captures images of a SEATO joint amphibious training exercise that took place in North Borneo during April and May 1961, involved 26,000 personnel from various SEATO members, and 60 warships (Marolda, 1994, 15: Entitled ‘Operation Pony Express’, this operation is not to be confused with identically named covert cross-border supply operations undertaken by the US during the Vietnam war).

Although SEATO never sent forces into battle, from 1963 onwards the jungles of North Borneo were the scene of fighting by British and Commonwealth troops, with initial deployments prompted by Indonesian incursions from Kalimantan. This low-level jungle war (there was no air war) was the ‘hot’ element of a very serious stand-off – the ‘Confrontation’ – with Sukarno’s Indonesia, a potentially major conflict borne of discontent with the creation of Malaysia: Sukarno viewed the federation as a straightforwardly neo-colonialist enterprise, and had determined to destroy it.

Although the situation led to combat in Borneo, it did not result in an all-out British-Indonesian war. However, the possibility for escalation was there. Louis considers the Confrontation to have had the ‘potential of becoming to Britain what Vietnam was to the United States’ (Louis, op.cit., 573), and cites a confidential note to the effect that the US, in the view of the British, may have been willing to become involved should the situation have descended into a ‘catastrophic war against Indonesia’ (ibid., 573-4).

Filmed during the days in which the Tunku announced his position on the creation of Malaysia, and recording large-scale military manoeuvres undertaken by a largely lame and relatively short-lived coalition (SEATO was dissolved in 1977), the Boles collection captures scenes of a key location at a febrile historical moment. Against the backdrop of the Vietnam War and global anti-Communist strategy, the British Empire east of Suez was being dismantled piecemeal, and under complex pressures. A dramatically changed geopolitical system was being struggled over on the battlefields of South-East Asia, and in this light Britain’s imperial intrigues appear anachronistic and weak, as indeed they were: Boles’ films show just how complete American-led military penetration of formerly British zones could be when necessary, and convey the sense that the British Imperial moment had definitively passed into history.

The films are also an interesting record of what didn’t quite happen in South-East Asia: British forces did not at any stage fight alongside American troops in Vietnam, SEATO did not ever deploy militarily, and perhaps most immediately considering the context, the Indonesian Confrontation, centred on what had latterly been British North Borneo, did not escalate into full-scale war. Had it done so, the scenes captured here would no doubt have been played out again, but in deadly earnest.  

Francis Gooding March 2010


Works Cited

Buszynski, Leszek SEATO: The Failure of an Alliance Strategy (Singapore: Singapore University Press, 1983)

Hyam, Ronald Britain’s Declining Empire: The Road to Decolonisation, 1918-1968 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006)

Jones, Matthew Conflict and Confrontation in South-East Asia, 1961-1965 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002)

Louis, Wm. Roger ‘The Dissolution of the British Empire in the Era of Vietnam’ in Ends of British Imperialism: The Scramble for Empire, Suez, and Decolonization (London: I. B. Tauris, 2006, 557-89)

Marolda, Edward J By Sea, By Air, By Land: An Illustrated History of the US Navy and the War in South-East Asia (Washington: Naval Historical Centre, 1994)

Tarling, Nicholas The Fall of Imperial Britain in South-East Asia (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1993)



  • Boles Collection 3: Royal Marines Manoeuvres, British North Borneo 1961 (Archive)
Series Title:
Boles Collection

Technical Data

Running Time:
approx 12m 30s
Film Gauge (Format):
8mm VHS
approx 125ft

Production Credits

Production Details
See synopsis