The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders
Combat Tracker Teams
1964 - 1966
All photographs are the property of RHQ Argylls and may not be reproduced or copied without permission from RHQ Argylls.
When the Battalion left Borneo at the end of its third tour, one sub-unit completely disappeared from the order of battle: the Combat Tracker Team. Outside of Malaysia little was known about the organisation and uses of a tracker team or of the part that they have played in the battalion’s own actions along the borders of Sarawak.
Training and Organisation
The background to tracker team development is extremely sketchy and little or nothing has been written about their primitive beginnings during the emergencies in Malaya and Kenya. When the Battalion first went to Borneo in the spring of 1964 it had no tracker team and no-one was quite sure why they were required to send valuable riflemen away to train as dog handlers. Next, companies were asked to produce picked men for training under the auspices of 42 Commando RM in Kuching and here for the first time the dogs and handlers from the Jungle Warfare School, the Iban trackers from the Police Field Force, and the riflemen from A and B Companies actually met. Only then did the ideas behind the employment of a tracker team become generally known and like all "private armies" they were viewed with the utmost suspicion.
The basic idea behind the development of tracker teams was to provide specialists to detect and track down the deep Indonesian penetrations into the vast expanses of the primary jungle along Sarawak's southern border. In order to do this effectively the team had to be able to move fast and to accurately report the strength, direction of travel and time ahead of them of the enemy party. The advantages of using a team instead of employing individuals collected together on the spur of the moment were five-fold. First, they possessed all the obvious advantages of team spirit ; secondly, they were all experts at their special jobs ; thirdly, they were trained to the peak of physical fitness to enable prolonged forced marches; fourthly, they could form two teams in an emergency, and finally, they possessed flexibility by being trained to do one another's jobs. Obviously there were weaknesses in this idea. It was found, for instance, that the team had always to work with a support group, normally a rifle platoon, travelling behind it because the Indonesians had started patrolling in far larger numbers. Again, in order to move fast they could only carry a maximum of two days rations and if they moved flat out they would, on occasions, outdistance their support group. Finally, of course, there are numbers of natural and man-made factors they can throw a team off the scent.
Click on picture to enlarge
A. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9
The composition of the teams varied slightly from tour to tour, but the basic components remained the same. They were commanded by a sergeant with a lance-corporal as 2 i/c. there were two signallers, two dog handlers and three or four riflemen or "covermen" to give them their correct title. Finally there were two Iban trackers and two tracker dogs, normally labradors but on one occasion a doberman. Other than the Ibans all the members of the team were Argylls, though on the first tour the RAVC provided two of the four handlers. Throughout the battalion’s time in the Far East the RAVC were an outstanding help and might we'll be described as "a small Corps with a big bite."
After a contact, or at any time when a suspicious track is found, the CTT is sent for and the Ibans make a search of the area. They find the freshest track and reports its age and the number of men who used it to the team commander. He, in turn, reports by wireless to enable stops to be flown in on possible escape routes and orders a dog to be placed in its tracking harness. The dog then follows the scent left by either the human enemy, his equipment or the vegetations crushed underfoot at a speed that often approaches a gallop. If the dog loses the trail the Ibans cast about in a box pattern from the last definite sign until it is found again and the dog is replaced. When the dog indicates that the opposition is extremely close the Ibans once again take over to actually pin-point the enemy sentry of camp-site. The team commander then reports and hands over to the support group. The team's main task is done though it will often be used to provide fire support for an assault by the rifle platoon, or to kill or capture if the enemy are relatively few. After the assault the team is brought forward and searches the area to find any enemy wounded and then to pick up the best track along which to continue the follow-up.
CTT Operations in Borneo
When the battalion’s first two teams finished their initial fortnight's training in Kuching they were sent to join A Company at Bario on the border in the 4th Division. To start with their time was taken up with continuation training and general acclimatisation to the hills and atmosphere of an area that starts 3,000 feet above sea level. They were still regarded with a good deal of suspicion and most platoon commanders worked on the principle of follow anything until you lose the track and then send for the CTT to sort it out.
The first real excitement came when the platoon position at Pa Lungan was mortared in the night. The A Company tracker team was flown in and found and followed the tracks of a moderate sized enemy party. Just, however, when the trail appeared to be getting warm, one of the Ibans had an accidental discharge. The team commander had no support group and having lost all hope of surprise was forced to turn for home. It will never be known whether the Iban knew the enemy was very close, or had some form of sixth sense, but when a follow-up patrol went out later in the week it found an Indonesian ambush position for upward of 60 men, only a few hundred yards past the point reached by the team. This, needless to say, was the last time that a team went out without a support group.
After this first Incident there was a period of quiet, until one day a breathless and rather harassed Border Scout came into the platoon position at Pa Umer, to say that he had just escaped from a party of Indonesians who were taking three of his companions over the border as prisoners. The B Company tracker team and half a platoon from A Company were flown immediately by helicopter to an LZ near the enemy's most probable exit route.
They crossed the major river in the Area, picked up the tracks, and started to follow-up in torrential rain and fast approaching darkness. The track climbed a narrow stream bed to the border and the team actually passed the enemy camp in the gloom. The support group, moving 400 yards further back, was ambushed forced to ground in the stream bed. In the ensuing fire-fight one Argyll was wounded in the leg, the Border Scouts escaped from their captors, the enemy pulled out with at the most one man slightly wounded and the whole Argyll party withdrew 300 yards to a more easily defended position as complete darkness fell.
A dawn search revealed a certain amount of enemy kit but no definite tracks. This rather indecisive contact, however, did a tremendous amount of good to the battalion. It established the worth of the CTT. but far more important it brought home to everybody, for the first time, that we were not simply going for walks in the woods. We were faced by an enemy, who despite being much aligned in the British press, can be an extremely formidable opponent.
The third and final contact of the tour was a classic example of the employment of the tracker team. Pa Lungan was mortared again in the night by a 60 mm weapon brought to within 400 yards of the perimeter. At dawn the next day the usual morning mist lifted early and two Whirlwind helicopters had the B Company team on the ground by 0700 hours. The team set out with half a platoon in support and soon found tracks of about 18 men.
A series of "stops" were then flown in on likely escape routes and units already on patrol were re-deployed. The team crossed the Sungei Dannur and heard the Indonesians above them, as they climbed the border ridge. One of the Ibans went forward, saw and shot dead the enemy sentry and then wounded another. The support group did a flanking attack, drove the enemy from their position and were forced to kill the still resisting wounded man. Four of the enemy party (which had now grown to 27), fled straight up the track and were killed in an ambush which had been positioned earlier in the pass. Six enemy bodies altogether were recovered, others were known to have been wounded, and 27 complete sets of equipment were captured. All the Argyll sub-units involved were commanded by sergeants and the CTT commander Sgt B. Baty was awarded the M.M. for his part in the action.
B. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9
When the Battalion returned to Singapore the teams were disbanded though two of the dog handlers stayed at the JWS. In December an officer was sent to learn how to train tracker teams on the first course to be run by the RAVC and he was later joined by the two L/Sgts selected to command the new teams. The CTT had established themselves as the elite of the Battalion and the calibre of man selected for the B and D Company teams was exceptionally high. They trained for three weeks in the jungles of Johore and were very fit polished performers by the time they reached Balai Ringin in Sarawak's 1st Division at the beginning of February. There, however, it soon became obvious that the team would not be able to perform the role for which it had trained.
The heavily cultivated and by Borneo standards, well populated areas of the 1st Division were a far cry from the vast expanse of rolling primary hills near Bario. Added to this the enemy was now only launching quick shallow incursions that allowed no time or space for a follow-up. Even the Battalion move in mid-tour to the Lundu area at the western tip of Borneo failed to improve matters. The only actual operational track of the tour was against subversive Communist elements
who immediately disappeared into the nearest Kampong area. The remainder of the tour the team spent searching remote areas in the off chance of finding evidence of illegal persons or activities. From the CTT point of view the tour was a disaster and boded ill for the future.
For the final tour, it was eventually decided to form only one team. The training was rethought and far more emphasis was placed on working in the area of Kampongs and in open rubber. The latter was the nearest substitute for Sarawak pepper fields that the Johore training areas could provide.
On arrival in Borneo the team went to Serian where BHQ was established and used this as their main base throughout the tour. The Battalion 2 i/c assumed overall responsibility for the team and provided both a liaison link direct to the rifle companies as well as co-ordination for their training. For a time it seemed as though their main role might be training, but in February 1966 the situation changed overnight. The Indonesians made their long awaited attempt to infiltrate through the battalion’s lines in order to contact the Chinese in the resettlement areas on the main Serian-Kuching road and the CTT was immediately deployed. Supported by A and D Company platoons it pushed the Indonesians north and finally chased them into the arms of a waiting Gurkha screen. In the second phase of the operation when the Security Forces were redeployed the team was attached to a Gurkha Company and led them direct to another enemy party. The Battalion gained by having CTT’s as they demanded and produced a very high calibre soldier and proved a veritable breeding ground for junior NCOs.
These notes are taken from an original article written by Lt D. P. Thomson, MC. for the TRL Magazine.
COMBAT TRACKER TEAMS OF THE VIETNAM WAR
First Tour - April to September 1964
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Updated: 11 October 2014