1st Battalion

The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders

 

Borneo Life

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BORNEO LIFE

 

         "Operational ideas and problems start to arise from the moment the helicopter first sets the advance party down in the new company base.  That genial welcome from a complete stranger may just be the hospitality one professional soldier extends to another, but it is more likely the thought of leaving that god-forsaken patch of hill and jungle that has made him expansive.  Soon the advance party will get a closer look at the hill and jungle in question. 

If the air situation is good the senior members of the party will be able to take a bird's eye view of their new domain from a helicopter.  The cool air, the sparkle on the streams, the lush greenness of the padi, and the dappled carpet of merging shades of primary and secondary jungle fill the inexperienced officer and NCO with an enthusiasm for this new land which will ail too soon be shattered. When the growth shows the bright green of wet padi he will find mud which may vary from a few inches to two feet of stinking squelch lying beneath its leaves. The neat little paths are linked by bridges made of a single round log, which suits the barefooted locals with their horny soles and prehensile toes, but are inclined to put the unwary jungle-booted Jock into the stream they cross. The long houses with their corn sheds standing a little apart, and the dusky maidens bathing or washing their clothes in the stream look idyllic from the air but often smell distinctly earthy on closer acquaintance (the longhouses, not the maidens) and the stilts on which they are built are less for decoration than to keep the ground floor out of the squalor and household rubbish stirred up by the numerous pigs who grunt and grovel below. The most disheartening discovery made on the first few hectic days of patrolling with the old incumbents concern the hills. From the helicopter there hardly appeared to be any hills - a few gentle undulations perhaps, leading to a slightly more pronounced ridge which marked the border.

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 The old team probably never mentioned them; they had become so familiar: It is only at the end of the first day's march that the advance party has a real idea of what the next four or five months would hold for them. In some areas there are few, and their slopes are gentle, but in most there are razor-backed ridges, sometimes rocky, sometimes of treacherous mud which provides no grip. Below these main features are the jumbled foothills, much of them covered in the thick secondary jungle which strangles the fallow hill padi fields in two or three years after cultivation ceases. The tangled growth makes movement incredibly slow, yet the branches and saplings are too tender to provide a hand hold to help a sweating struggling soldier keep his footing on the greasy clay slopes. And always the direction that the patrol must take is against the grain, involving endless small climbs and slithering descents, instead of the comparatively easy route along a ridge line or up a stream.  

An energetic week, or maybe ten days, completes the tour of all the known tracks, visits, to the border villages and inspection of helicopter landing sites. Meanwhile the administrative problems of running the base are being thrashed out: the work that the local labour squad can achieve, and which of the many volunteers should or should not be employed; the laundry; how the airdrops of supplies are ordered, controlled and acknowledged, the vagaries of the pumping and filtration system that produces drinkable water (if you are inured to the taste of chlorine) from a poisonous well or stream. Pervading every conversation or exploration are endless questions to fill in the intelligence picture, both what is known of the enemy over "the other side" and the attitude of every local dignitary or community to the problem of confrontation.  Half of the battle will be the straightforward military aspect: patrolling, ambushing and observing the enemy. The other half will be winning or retaining the friendship, co-operation and trust of the local inhabitants, without which the war can never be won.

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At long last the day arrives when the handover is due to take place. A programme for helicopter lifts produced the night before is viewed with considerable scepticism by anyone who has had previous experience of unit moves, but must be used for planning. The outgoing unit is up early, packed and clear of the billets long before the first aircraft arrives, and as the slow shuttle takes place, so they move further into the limbo of suspended animation which is an essential if one is to remain sane during any military move. In contrast the advance party are in a flurry of activity producing guards, guides, cooks, storemen, overseers for the local labourers, and generally changing everything to meet the requirements of the new regime before the first plane load arrives. If all goes well the changeover is completed in two or three hours. If the weather or the RAF upset the programme there may be a delay for as much as twenty-four hours, but at last the old inhabitants have left and the problems of the area rest fair and square on the shoulders of the new company.No one can generalise about a tour in Borneo because the situation changes so often. Patrols may take on a pattern for a week to two, but then enemy activity, financial or political restrictions, or a lucky break may change the emphasis. In general terms, however, one patrol is very like another. There is a day of preparations, drawing rations, checking ammunition, range work, and packing kit. The patrol may leave camp on foot, or may be taken by helicopter, boat, or, in rear areas, trucks, to its starting point if the distances are great. Its task could be searching for tracks made by enemy parties, learning the local geography, building or manning an observation post in the border area, cutting a helicopter landing zone, or, on rare occasions, the pursuit of an enemy party which has been rash enough to trespass into Sarawak.  One thing is common to every type of patrols it will involve a good deal of physical exercise. 

         

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 Wherever one moves one carries the food and ammunition, radio, batteries, weapons and medical supplies needed for the length of the patrol. And like the tortoise, your house as well. A patrol may include men carrying 70 or 80 pounds on their backs and their belts on the day they leave camp, and they will march with this load for six or seven hours, sometimes in temperatures reaching 90 or 100 degrees. If you aren't fit to start with you soon become so. There have been many improvements to make the load lighter since our first tour in Borneo. The Armalite rifle has replaced the SLR, with a saving both in the weight of the weapon and its ammunition: the old rubber ponchos have been replaced by an Australian plastic sheet which will pack into the size of a mess tin, and the so-called light weight blanket has been superseded by a nylon sleeping bag which can slip into a pocket. Most men have also given up carrying a spare set of uniform and instead take a "zoot-suit" - a Churchillian boiler suit made of parachute silk. The greatest, advance of all has been in producing a light-weight ration pack, so that the tins that are filled with as much water as food have been replaced by dehydrated (neat blocks, dried egg powder, soup powder, apple flakes and a number of smaller and reasonably tasty items. All that the weight saving means to the Jocks is that he is expected to stay out longer on patrol than he used to before. Back to the patrol. Because of the burden of carrying unnecessary kit, the platoon commander will probably march to the area from which he is going to operate, and establish a base camp. He finds a reasonably level patch of ground, allocates areas to the sections and they move in, clear what undergrowth they need and put up their shelters in a matter of minutes, what used to be a slow and complicated operation has become second nature. Sentries are already posted: a party is sent to find water, which will later be strained through a filter like a canvas stocking, and then dosed with pills before it is pronounced safe to drink. The radio operator reports the patrol's position, and the first section is sent off on its task of exploration, construction or whatever may be in the programme. 

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 A patrol will seldom use the same base for more than two nights, and will probably dismantle the bashas each morning and pack everything away in case a hurried move should be necessary. Every move is accompanied by tidying up to try and conceal as far as possible all traces of occupation. These efforts are often made fruitless by the pigs who share the jungle with us and manage to dig up any rubbish pit and tins for several yards around, but still the effort must be made. On the whole the patrol's work takes place in daylight though ambushes and observation may be planned for the night as well. The evening meal is cooked any time between 4.30 and 6 pm; clothes are changed, orders for the next day given out, a last smoke before dark and then as dusk closes in at about a quarter to seven the platoon stands to, alert for any enemy who have tracked down its resting place. The cricket shrills its klaxon-like signal that evening has come; darkness falls and the platoon commander gives a soft whistle which sends those not on guard to their beds. The long tropical night means that everyone has a chance of an adequate sleep, in spite of interruption for guard duty, and the slight changes over the seasons make little more than five minutes' difference at dawn and dusk to the time of stand to. Another advantage over European soldiering is the evenness of the temperature. High on the mountains extra clothing and a blanket may be needed at night, but in normal conditions a single suit of dry clothes gives enough warmth for even the bleakest stag before dawn. Finally, although it is a country of remarkable rainfall, most of the rain comes in the afternoon or evening and it's an unfortunate sentry who gets out of his warm dry bed to spend an hour being soaked. It does happen, but perhaps not as often as one would expect. Sentries change: the moon rises and sets, a glimmer of dawn lightens the sky and the patrol is wakened again for another day's work. First "stand to," in theory silent, but in practice too often punctuated by the smokers' chesty coughs, and the monosyllabic comment made by ail Jocks about anything that intrudes on their subconscious. Daylight comes quickly, and as soon as there is enough light to hide the flames of cigarettes and cooking fires, the egg powder and tea bags come out and breakfast of scrambled eggs or omelette, oatmeal blocks and biscuits is prepared. 

    

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And so it goes on. One day is generally very like another. The one thing that brings everyone on to their toes is the prospect of closing with the enemy. No one can maintain the constant high standard of vigilance needed unless there is sometimes this additional spur. It may come by finding an unidentified footprint; there may be better news than usual of a track that is worth ambushing, or best of all someone may have seen the enemy and a patrol is sent to cut them off or to follow them up. These incidents are all too rare, and it is then left to the training and leadership of the platoon and section commanders to ensure that the vigilance of every patrol is maintained in spite of the humdrum, repetitive and strenuous nature of their routine. Most patrols take place close to the border, in country which has gone out of cultivation since confrontation started.  Part of the Battalion's job, however, is not policing the border but raising the morale of the locals, and gaining their confidence so that they will report enemy activity or attempts to convert them to communist or anti-government ideas.  Officially known as the "Hearts and Minds" campaign it adds to the purely military operations a rewarding human aspect.  The remote villages near the border had never been touched by civilisation before the arrival of the army. Now they take it as a matter of course that their serious patients will be whisked away to hospital by helicopter: that patrols will visit their kampongs and dose the sick, and that their plans for bridges, or fish ponds, playing fields or schools will materialise because the army now works in close conjunction with the civil government and lends weight to a well conceived project for improvement. It is incongruous that confrontation, which Soekarno intended should destroy Malaysia, has  brought a prosperity to parts of the country that could never otherwise have benefited from the works of a government hamstrung by shortage of funds and poor communications. In the rear areas much of the work of the company is closer to that of policeman than soldier, trying to smell out the elements who plan to overthrow the government or carry out acts of sabotage. It is only by endless patience and the will to get on well with the law-abiding members of the community that this type of warfare can ever be won. Manning road blocks, checking river traffic, searching areas of hill and cave, ambushing tracks, enforcing the curfew, are all tasks where it is only too easy to play the gauleiter and antagonise the people whom one has come to help.  This is especially true when there is a serious language barrier with several dialects of Malay, Dyak, Chinese and pidgin English to add to the confusion. Luckily both the Jock and the local residents seem to accept it all as part of the way of life and co-operate in a way never found in places like Cyprus. 

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Life, though, is not spent entirely on patrol, and for some, such as cooks and storemen patrols are the exception rather than the rule. Routine in camp will vary from company to company, but all are alike in trying to make some comfort and homeliness out of ingredients which would make an outsider despair. The border camps are partly built underground, with bunkers for four or six men, opening on to a window or embrasure through which they would fire their weapons if anyone was rash enough to attack the post. The further one moves from the border the less subterranean is the existence and the emphasis is more on gracious living and less on defence. One or two positions have included police stations or other buildings; many have been built by the locals in their native style, with a roof of "atap" - a thatch made of leaves - and a floor of split bamboo. Every camp has at least one landing zone for a helicopter, and generally two or more. The perimeter is surrounded by coils of wire, and the sentry posts contain switch boxes for setting off flares at night and mines to blow any invaders into the next world.  The 3 in. or 81 mm mortars and General Purpose Machine Guns are mounted to cover the most likely approaches, and every man knows the post from which he will fight if the enemy should attack. In many the Gunners provide a 105 mm howitzer and its crew whose activities are more often cursed by men whose sleep they disturb than blessed by those they support. The amenities will certainly include & volleyball pitch, probably a badminton court, and if lucky there will be a football field of something more than quarter the regulation size on which the company can get its exercise. There may be a central hut or shelter that can be used as a NAAFI, or the canteen may only be a store with a serving hatch, but it is the most important link with the outside world handling everything from Christmas presents to girlfriends in Britain to a box of matches, and including the important beer ration of two cans a day. 

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As the bases become better established so their comforts grow. Hot water is now standard, though produced by a Heath Robinson machine made of a 44 gallon drum and some bent pipe. In most positions there is also electricity, with the great advantage that films can now be shown to others besides the Bn HO people. Furniture is the product of local skill and ingenuity, but there are few "grots," "hutchies" or "bashas" that aren't decorated with a fair amount of condemned parachute material, unless they are papered with pin-ups from "Playboy."  One aspect of life in Borneo that affects everyone is the food. The very high standard of cooking in all the positions in spite of the need to improvise in the design of cookers, oven and washing up devices, has made all the difference to the battalion's existence. Rations may come in by road, river or airdrop, but the cook is the man who makes them edible and this the team has certainly achieved.  As the tour draws nearer to its end we try to resist the temptation to paint and pack up boxes, count the days and generally rest on our bottoms or laurels. Apart from the necessity to keep up the pressure right to the end to ensure that the area is buttoned up properly for our successors, there is also the hectic hand-over period to keep us busy right up to the end. There will be the same routine as faced our own advance party:  paper, stores and local knowledge to hand over.  The paper may have increased: the stores should be much the same, and we trust the local knowledge will be far more complete than it was on our arrival. One thing that can be guaranteed, though, is that we will extend the same open-handed welcome to our successors as we were given five months before, whether they be dwarves, gremlins, ogres, or, as is most likely, perfectly ordinary professional soldiers." 

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    If anyone can put names to faces with rank, company, date and location. Please e-mail with page name, row number and picture letter to  

         ayoung287@msn.com

 

First Tour - April to September 1964

 

Second Tour February to May 1965

 

Third Tour - November 1965- April 1966

 

Borneo Pictures

 

More Borneo Pictures

 

Singapore 1964-1966

 

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Updated: 11 October 2014