Brunei Revolt 1962: attack on Limbang by L Company, 42 Royal Marine Commando

The auction house Noonans ( is auctioning a Naval DSM that was awarded ‘’For gallant and distinguished services in operations in Brunei during the period 8th to 23rd December 1962′ to Petty Officer Mechanician P. J. D. Kirwin, Royal Navy (thanks to Major John Harrop for this information).

Kirwin was Stoker Petty Officer of the leading lighter at the opposed Royal Marines Commando raid against heavily armed Indonesian supported rebels at Limbang, Brunei, on 12 December 1962, who, ‘when his craft came under heavy fire, left the safety of his engine room, grasped his automatic weapon, and engaged the rebels himself at very close range’. The award was promulgated in the London Gazette 31 May 1963.

Kirwin’s DSM and Brunei Service Medal

D.S.M. Citation and description of the action:

Up to 1962, the island of Borneo was divided into the vast southern area under Indonesian rule and three British dependencies, Sarawak, North Borneo and, sandwiched between them, the tiny but very wealthy protectorate of Brunei. With the sun gradually setting on British interests in this part of the Far East, a proposal to include these three northern Borneo states into the new Federation of Malaysia was opposed by Indonesia which then proceeded to back the dissident TNKU in mounting an insurrection in Brunei with the aim of maintaining a North Borneo Union. To further this, in December 1962 the rebels occupied several towns, including Brunei town and at Limbang across the border in Sarawak, they held a number of hostages, including the British Government’s Agent – the ‘Resident’, ‘Dick’ Morris – his wife and a nursing sister. There were indications that the hostages were to be executed on 12 December. At this time 42 Commando, who were awaiting Christmas in Singapore, were put on short notice, and two days later ‘L’ Company, under Captain Jeremy Moore (later to command British Land Forces during the Falklands War), flew to Brunei Town where the Gurkhas had restored order. In fact, most of the trouble had been quickly stamped out, except at Limbang, only accessible by river.

Amphibious Assault on Limbang

Tasked with rescuing the Limbang hostages, Moore’s urgency was further sharpened when it was learned that the TKNU had murdered some hostages at Bangar. At the waterfront in Brunei he met the Senior Naval Officer, Lieutenant-Commander J. J. Black (who by coincidence would also rise to senior command during the Falklands War as Captain of the aircraft carrier H.M.S. Invincible) who had requisitioned two Z-Lighter landing craft for the raid, the Nakhoda Manis and the Sindaun, and provided these with five man crews from the minesweepers Fiskerton and Chawton under his command. Lieutenant Willis, being Black’s First Lieutenant, was appointed as the Senior Naval Officer charged with ensuring that the task force arrived off Limbang but once the assault landing was under way, the lighters would then come under the tactical direction of the senior Royal Marine on board. None of the Royal Navy men under Willis had any experience in handling Z-Craft or landing craft operations but they were now being committed to the daunting prospect of an opposed landing.

At 10pm on 11 December, the understrength ‘L’ Company of 87 men, faces blackened, all wearing green berets with glinting cap badges for identification, filed on to the waiting Z-Craft. On board the lead lighter, Nakhoda Manis – commanded by Willis – was Captain Moore, his reconnaissance group, part of Company HQ, and 5 Troop. Also aboard as guide was Captain Muton, the Brunei Director of Marine who would later receive the M.B.E. for his efforts and four more Royal Navy crew including Petty Officer Mechanician Kirwin.

The assault went in at first light:

Terence Cuneo painting of the assault

When they were 300yds from the Limbang police station, and as the leading craft came abreast of the huts south of the town,‘it erupted like a disturbed ants’ nest as the rebels stood to’. At 200yds the Commando Intelligence Sergeant called through the loud-hailer in Malay: ‘The rebellion is over . . . you should lay down your arms.’ They replied with automatic weapons – an LMG, three or four SMGs – and some dozen rifles, supported by over 100 shotguns. The instantaneous counter-fire from both craft gave the commandos, thanks to their Vickers machine-guns, the initiative, enabling the leading craft to beach half a minute later only 30yds from the police station. Two marines of the leading No.5 Troop were killed before the craft gained the bank and their OC, Lt ‘Paddy’ Davis, was wounded as he jumped ashore. Sgt Bickford led two Sections of the Troop against the police station, which was quickly cleared, but the naval coxswain of the leading craft had been wounded and as the craft drifted off the bank, Lt D.O. Willis, RN, drove it hard back ashore; but this shallow draught lighter broached to 150yds upstream between the hospital and the home of the British Resident. Capt Moore sent the reserve section ashore, with HQ personnel led by TSM McDonald, and they cleared the hospital. As they came through to the back of this building, the Troop sergeant and two marines were killed, ‘for the jungle comes literally right down to the back door of the hospital’. The grounding of the craft up-river had been a fortunate accident, for Capt Moore found some of the hostages in the hospital. A rebel had fired at them but missed, and no one was hurt. While the ground between the hospital and the police station was being cleared, as was the Resident’s house, the Company Commander was told of more hostages. Therefore, he organised the clearing of the rest of the town to the south, and by the afternoon had released another eight hostages but at nightfall there were still rebels inside the Company’s perimeter, two of whom were killed close to the marines’ positions. Next day the town was secured. Five marines had been killed and six wounded (including a sailor), but the action here, coupled with those of the Gurkhas and Queen’s Own Highlanders elsewhere in Brunei, had broken the rebellion. At Limbang alone 15 rebels had been killed and 50 captured from a force of 350, – twice the expected size. They had been taken by surprise, as the commandos now discovered. The Vickers guns in the second craft had been masked, the Company Commander also learnt, by the leading craft, until QMS Cyril Quoins asked the officer commanding this lighter if he could pull out of line to give them a clearer shot. ‘Sergeant Major’, the officer replied, ‘Nelson would have loved you’, and promptly swung his craft into a more exposed position.’ (The Royal Marines by James D. Ladd refers.)

It is also worth quoting Captain Jeremy Moore’s observations, made much later:

‘It is perhaps interesting to note that, though my assessment of where the enemy headquarters might be was right, I was quite wrong about the hostages. Furthermore, it was chance that the second beaching happened where it did, that resulted in us taking the hospital from the direction we did. It could be that this saved us heavier casualties, though I assess the most important factor in the success of the operation was first class leadership by junior NCOs. Their section battle craft was a joy to watch and the credit for this belongs to the troop and Section commanders.’

Moore received a Bar to the Military Cross he had won during operations against Communist terrorists in Malaya during the Emergency of the 1950s. Royal Marine Corporals W. J. Lester and R. C. Rawlinson were awarded the M.M. and decorations were also awarded to two of the Royal Navy crew of the 1st Lighter. Lieutenant Willis got the D.S.C. for his command of the 1st Lighter when, having had two of his helmsmen shot at his side and 140 bullet holes in the bridge of his landing craft, he took the wheel himself and landed his Commando. Petty Officer Mechanician Kirwin, also of the 1st lighter under Willis, would be awarded the Distinguished Service Medal – The Naval Chronicle recording how, with his craft coming under heavy fire, Kirwin chose to leave the safety of the engine room and grasping an automatic weapon, engaged the rebels himself at very close range. Captain J. J. Black would later write of Kirwin’s gallantry: ‘after having heard the battle raging around his craft, he left his engines under the charge of his assistant, picked up his sten gun and joined in the gun battle by sticking his head out of his hatch.’

Kirwin’s rare award is one of only four Distinguished Service Medals awarded to men of the Royal Navy in the period from the Korean War in 1953 until the Falklands War in 1982. Two of these were for the Near East (Suez), one for operations in Borneo, and there is this sole award to Petty Officer Kirwin for Brunei. Just one of these other interim post-war D.S.M.s has been seen at auction (Able Seaman Loader’s Suez Crisis group which sold in these rooms in December 2021) while the other Limbang gallantry awards – to Moore, Rawlinson, Lester and Willis – are all yet to be sighted.

Patrick John Dennis Kirwin was born in 1932 at Barton upon Irwell, Lancashire, the son of Kathleen Mary Magee and John Kirwin. He died at Salford, Greater Manchester, in 1989.


Memorial outside Limbang Police Station:

Close up of the plaque commemorating those killed:


Reminiscence from Brigadier Bruce Jackman on 13th May 2022:

Coincidentally at the time [of the Limbang assault] I was OC 8 Pl in B Coy 1/2GR commanded by Terry Bowring. We relieved L Coy RM at Limbang days after their action, in which incidentally the Vickers machine guns that are mentioned had been borrowed from 1/2GR! 8 Pl and I then spent the best part of 2 months chasing Salleh bin Sambas, a turncoat rebel Police Field Force weapon training instructor.

Wanted poster for Salleh bin Sambas

He inflicted most of the casualties on the RM assault with a LMG fired from the roof of the Limbang customs building before he fled with one or two of his henchmen. We conducted a 10 day ambush on his house, which was on what we called ’the Limbang trail’ (a rough unmetalled road from Limbang to Bangar), but fortunately for him he kept away from the house and his gorgeous young Brunei/Malay wife! After Noel Fordyce had taken over from Terry Bowring we received a tip off from a local who led us to Salleh bin Sambas’s camp in a cave in the hills, but he and his group of about 4 people had left some 3 hours earlier, judging by the embers of a fire. We ambushed the cave for 10 days but he never returned. Two weeks later we found another camp built in a mangrove swamp on the edge of the Limbang River. We were set to ambush that for 10 miserable days perched in mangrove trees, but after 7 days we were forced to withdraw because the river Limbang overflowed after days of very heavy rain that caused the major floods in the whole Limbang valley. When 8 Pl and I left the now flooded ambush position to make our way out to a road-head about 2 miles away the water was up to the Gurkhas’ chests and we had to cut poles to feel our way through it. Finally the water level became too deep to proceed to the road over the last hundred yards or so. We only got out by felling a row of rubber trees and working our way along the line of fallen tree trunks – thank goodness they are planted in straight rows! Because of the huge widespread flooding all military operations were curtailed and the battalion began a humanitarian mission to rescue locals from the many longhouses upriver that were completely submerged or just washed away. I spent a couple of weeks with my orderly, a Gurkha signaller, and a couple of Royal Marines with a Gemini speedboat, living in the roof of a school building way up river, from where we helped coordinate events. Incidentally one of the Royal Marines was Capt David Storrie RM (recently died), who was a helicopter pilot in 845 Sqn RNAS that supported us in Third Division during our first Borneo tour in late 1963-early1964! Bob Waterton, OC D Coy, was awarded a humanitarian medal for his role in this humanitarian operation. Salleh bin Sambas meanwhile fled with other leaders of the rebellion over the border into Indonesia via Ba Kelalan (where I subsequently commanded C Coy in 1964). He returned to Brunei in May 1963 with Yasin Affendi (the rebel commander) and his ‘command group’ in the belief that they could re-ignite the rebellion, but they were captured (two killed?) by 1/7 GR on an island in the Brunei river on 18 May 63 in what was the last action of the Brunei Rebellion. When Salleh bin Sambas was released (I don’t know the year) he became the Chief Customs Officer in Limbang!

Book review courtesy of Brigadier Ian Rigden which explains what happened to Salleh bin Sambas (highlighted in red):

EILEEN CHANIN, Limbang Rebellion. Seven Days in December 1962.
Singapore: Ridge Books, 2013 (reprinted by Pen & Sword Military,
2014). XXII, 249 pages, $28.00. ISBN 978-9971-69-775-4 (pbk)

This book is family history, military history, colonial history and political history
in one. The rebellion of the title took place in Borneo during the decolonisation
era. The author, Eileen Chanin from the University of New South Wales, is a
prize-winning historian. Her new book, many years in the making, is based on
extensive research in Sarawak (Malaysia), Singapore, Australia and the United
Kingdom (pp. 205–36). She also trawled the archives of the Imperial War
Museum, the Royal Marines and the Mill Hill Missionaries. Telling use is made
of her own family’s papers: her parents-in-law were Richard and Dorothy Morris,
an Australian in the British Colonial Service and his wife, who were taken
hostage by rebels in Sarawak in 1962. They were released unharmed following
military action by a vastly outnumbered detachment of Royal Marines. Five commandos
were killed and six wounded during the engagement.

Captain Richard Holywell Morris OBE SMB (1915–2000), an only child
of Anglo-Welsh heritage, with but a “patchy education” (p. 28), arrived in Borneo
in 1945 with the Australian Imperial Force. After the war he was appointed to
the Sarawak Civil Service, in which he served until his retirement in 1964. By
November 1962, when he took up his appointment as Resident (administrator)
of the Limbang District, he had worked in all five administrative divisions of
the crown colony, in addition to a long spell (1954–8) in neighbouring Brunei.
The author remembers him as “a naturally gracious man with a cheerful and
caring disposition”. Dorothy Morris (died 2002), daughter of a bank manager,
was reared in country towns in New South Wales (p. 28). Blessed with a “sunny
personality”, she organized social events for the benefit of the Red Cross, for
which she was a life-long volunteer, a matter of some importance during the
ordeal she was to undergo in December 1962. The Morrises were both fluent in
Malay and Iban; Richard was also competent in Cantonese and written Arabic,
while Dorothy was a “ready listener and inveterate letter-writer”.

The main body of the book (Chapters 2–8) delivers a blow-by-blow account
of the uprising, with each chapter devoted to one day, starting on Friday, 7 December
and ending on Thursday, 13 December 1962. The Morrises were taken
prisoner at the outset (p. 51); the book portrays their “highs and lows” before
their “knights in shining armour” duly arrived five long days later. Similarly, the
emotions of the marines, their fear and tension before going into battle (many
for the first time), are excellently captured by Chanin. The assault force suffered
from many handicaps: a lack of information about the movements of the enemy,
no adequate maps, poor equipment, and deficiencies in transport. Owing to their
excellent training, the marines were able to overcome all of these problems.
Sheikh Ahmad Azahari (1928–2002), the leader of the Brunei revolt, does
not get a “good press” here.

The most interesting insurgent is perhaps Salleh bin
Sambas, known as Salleh Jangut, the bearded one, who was 30 years old in
1962. A former member of the Sarawak Field Force, he was a master of the
Bren gun. Leading the assault on Limbang, he saw himself as a freedom fighter,
like Rosli bin Dobhi (assassin of Governor Stewart in 1949). After the Royal
Marines recaptured Limbang, Salleh, though wounded in the arm and chest,
escaped on a bicycle. He lay low for a lengthy period and was eventually captured
near Serdang by Gurkhas acting on information from a food carrier. He was subsequently
sentenced to 15 years in gaol. Released after only a decade, Salleh
later became a penghulu and a village hero in Limbang (pp. 31–2, 163, 173–4,
196, 203, 223).

The rebellion certainly revealed to the colonial regime its own unpopularity.
“It now seems fairly certain”, Morris himself stated shortly after the trouble had
subsided, “that virtually all Malays and Kedayans in Limbang district had a
foreknowledge of the intended rebellion. This knowledge in some cases appears
to have been quite detailed. Despite this, no information was passed either to
the Police or to myself” (p. 175). For Dorothy, things could never be the same
again: “Our dear friendly Sarawak” had suddenly become hostile; “those long
stretches of river where we always waved to fellow voyagers”, she added, “I’m
sure I could never travel happily on those again; where any bend could produce
some snipers” (p. 149).

Mention must be made here of the Limbang postmaster, Abang Omar bin
Abang Samaudin, who ministered to the captives as a Red Cross volunteer, surreptitiously
giving them the latest news and keeping up their morale. He was
awarded the Queen’s Commendation for Brave Conduct and died in 1992
(pp. 36, 73–4, 110–14, 183, 200, 203).

There are a few factual errors: Duncan Stewart (p. 18) was never awarded
a knighthood; the Governor of Sarawak was “High Commissioner” rather than
“Governor” (p. 15) of Brunei in 1948–59; to describe Morris as “Minister of
Economic Development” (p. 16) is rather grandiose, given that the sultanate did
not have a cabinet in 1958; finally, the Brunei honour “SMB” awarded to Morris
appears to have been gazetted originally in 1966, not 1970 (p. 201, see Brunei
Government Gazette, 5 November 1966: 260). But these are quibbles.

Overall, Limbang Rebellion. Seven Days in December 1962 sets the benchmark
for any future study of the Brunei Revolt and its spillover effects elsewhere
in Borneo. Eileen Chanin is a very careful historian; and she has produced an
exemplary narrative. The strength of the monograph is its first-hand testimony,
produced here for the first time; its glaring deficiency is the lack of original
documentation reflecting the rebel perspective. Given that the outcome is known
in advance, some narrative tension is lost; even so, the interest of the reader is
retained from first to last.

(Review by Anthony V.M. Horton).


Comments by Lieutenant General Sir Peter Duffell:

I fear that my cursory acknowledgement of your [Major John Harrop’s] note about the DSM awarded to Petty Officer Kirwin RN for the part he  played in 42 Commando RM’s assault on Limbang on 12 December 1962 did not do justice to the memories it awakened for this old soldier and no doubt for the 150 young Riflemen who had arrived in the Battalion from recruit training only a few days before our deployment from Singapore on 8 December.

The Brunei operation, nearly sixty years ago, was a modest imperial campaign in which the First Battalion played a leading role. No doubt as December and the anniversary of the operation approaches more will be heard about this campaign to contain and supress a rebellion within a British protectorate in South East Asia – an unexpected uprising against a benign ruling Sultan .  It was an insurgency that took the region’s political and military leadership – and the First Battalion –  almost totally by surprise. In the great sum of things it was no more than a minor fragment of military history even if for me and some of our younger soldiers it was certainly a military rite of passage. It was to lead to a much more serious and demanding three year campaign in Borneo a few months later for which as a result of our Brunei experience we were much better prepared.

The First Battalion, the Queen’s Own Highlanders and 42 Commando did all the heavy lifting and most dangerous matters were pretty well concluded in the first ten days or so of the campaign albeit at some cost, particularly to ourselves and 42 Commando. War stories will no doubt emerge in more detail as the anniversary approaches – and our regimental history tells our tale – but the Limbang assault on 12 December by L Company 42 Commando – led by Captain Jeremy Moore who later was to enter military folklore as the ‘man of the match’ in the Falklands campaign – was a courageous raid on a rebel-held hotspot at Limbang where several officials including the British Resident had been taken hostage and threatened with execution.

Using commandeered cargo lighters identified in Brunei harbour and organised by Lieutenant Jeremy Black RN who was also to achieve fame as the commander of HMS Invincible during the Falklands campaign  (‘there and back with Jeremy Black’) –  and with some rapidly assembled armour plating attached to the Lighters’ sides, the Marines approached the town sailing up the Limbang River and successfully conducted an opposed landing, recapturing Limbang and releasing the hostages. Five Marines were killed and eight wounded in the assault and the follow-up operation. During the engagement 15 rebels were also killed and 24 captured although the rebel leader – Salleh bin Sambas – managed to slip the net and was only captured several weeks later. Together with the Commandos success, our own early operations in Brunei Town, Tutong and Kuala Belait and the Highlanders achievements in the oil fields of Seria, the major thrust of the rebellion was quickly contained.

Historically it was the role played by the First Battalion that ensured a continuing Gurkha presence in Brunei to this day and helped to cement our place in the British Army. L Company is still titled the Limbang Company to mark the Marines and Royal Navy heroism on that single day in the Brunei campaign as exemplified by the DSM won by Petty Officer Kirwin RN and several other awards to those who took part in that gallant raid.

Limbang 8 Limbang 7 Salleh bin hambas wanted poster Limbang 3 Limbang4 Limbang 2 Limbang 1

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