Note: Timings are approximate but the dates are accurate.
Sat 8 Dec 62
I was spending the weekend at Slim Barracks, Singapore, from the Jungle Warfare Course in Kota Tinggi, Jahor Bahru. On the Friday evening the bachelors in the Officers Mess (Digby Willoughby, Peter Duffell, John Burlison, David Stevens, and me) went out to the cinema to see John Wayne in ‘The Longest Day’. On the Saturday morning I awoke early to much noise in the barracks. From the balcony outside my room I saw a mass of activity as soldiers loaded trucks. I assumed it was a ‘Fast Move’ exercise getting underway. They were frequently inflicted on the battalion at no notice to test our ability as an airportable unit to react and muster a given number of companies for immediate deployment to anywhere in the Far East. Each airportable battalion in Singapore had a specific area for which it was responsible and equipped with the relevant maps and operation orders. Our area was Fiji.
At about 0800 I went to Battalion HQ to collect my personal mail. There I saw the Adutant (Capt Digby Willoughby) in his office and he immediately summoned me to help him with aircraft manifests. He told me that we were deploying for real, not a training exercise, to quell a rebellion in Brunei. None of us knew where Brunei was as it was almost an unknown sultanate at the time – and we had no maps or operation orders. Apparently Brunei was the responsibility of the Queens Own Highlanders who, for one reason or other, were unable to react.
1200 approx. Brig Pat Patterson, Commander 99 Brigade, visited Bn HQ to speak with the Commandant (Lt Col Gordon Shakespear). I was introduced to the Brigadier in Adjt’s office and he asked why I was not in uniform. I explained that I was down for the weekend from the Jungle Warfare Course. He told the Adjt to arrange for me to prepare to deploy to Brunei on the next available transport. Because all my military equipment and personal weapon etc, was at the Jungle Warfare School, I was kitted out in the QM Store like a new recruit with full battle order, including clothes, and a new personal weapon (SMG), for which I was invited to sign and pay for by Maj Dick Connell, the QM. I was aghast at the cost, but as I departed from his office Dick called me back and tore up the invoices!
Sun 9 Dec.
In the morning I stood by to depart at any time that day by whatever means. Later in the morning I was warned that I would travel in a RN warship as OIC Troops, with Lt (QGO) Bhojbahadur Gurung (Sigs Pl) as my 2IC, and 80+ Gurkhas from all companies (Courses/Cadres, Pensioners, and Leave personnel).
1900 approx. My party was transported to Sembawang RN Base.
2300 approx. We embarked on HMS Cavalier, the fastest destroyer in the Navy at the time, and set sail at about midnight.
Mon 10 Dec 62
We had a very uncomfortable all-day passage to Labuan at an average speed of about 30kts through a typhoon, pitching and rolling through mountainous waves. I and the Gurkhas, who all wrapped their issue towels round their heads, were violently sea-sick throughout the passage – all, that is, except Bhojbahadur who lived and ate well in the Wardroom. I spent much of the time ensconced on the upper deck against a bulkhead behind the funnel, wrapped in blanket and poncho cape, occasionally being fed oranges by Bhojbahadur.
HMS Cavalier at speed.
Tue 11 Dec 62
0200 approx. We arrived at Labuan after about 26 hours sailing. We disembarked in a terrible state of post sea-sickness, only to discovered one Rifleman missing. He was eventually found inside a lifeboat under a tarpaulin cover! I regarded him as having great initiative and he would no doubt go far in the battalion in future. We were transported to Labuan airport where we spent the night in a hangar.
0700-0900 approx. We were ferried from Labuan to the Brunei airfield by RAF Beverley aircraft shuttle. We witnessed casualties arriving in Labuan from Brunei for onward flights to BMH Singapore. This had quite an impact on all of us. From the airfield we were transported into the town in PWD lorries.
1000 approx. I reported to the Bn 2IC (Maj Tony Lloyd-Williams) in Bn HQ in the Civic Centre in Brunei Town. The remainder of my party was dispersed to their respective companies. I remained in Bn HQ as Asst IO to Capt Peter Duffell (IO).
Am/pm. I spent the rest of the day on Bn HQ duties setting up the Ops Room etc.
Wed 12 Dec 62
Mid-morning I visited David Stevens in the Brunei Hospital, he having been wounded during the night of the 9th when he was leading an ad-hoc patrol from Bn HQ to investigate a report of rebels being seen near the Government Buildings. They were ambushed from the balcony of one of the buildings. When I visited him he was weak and pale, and was coughing occasionally, but chatted and seemed in reasonable spirits.
In the afternoon I was continuing with Bn HQ duties when we received the news that David Stevens had died at about midday – apparently of pneumonia as a result of his wounds which had punctured his lung.
1500 approx. We received reports of a rebel force (strength unknown) due to enter Brunei Town from the NE that night. I was ordered to take an ad-hoc group (Int & Sigs Pls) and ambush the only road/track in that area. We remained in ambush all night without incident.
Thu 13 Dec 62
I was involved in the planning and preparation for a sea and land assault on Muara the following morning by A Coy and a Composite HQ Coy Group with Bn HQ Tac HQ. The plan was for A Coy and a HQ Coy Composite Coy under overall command of Maj Tony Lloyd-Williams to carry out a two-pronged attack from land and sea at dawn. Half the force under command Capt Hugh Diamond (OC A Coy) went by land in PWD vehicles. The remainder was commanded by Capt (GCO) Lalsing Thapa (RSO) with Tac HQ commanded by Maj Tony Lloyd Williams (Bn 2IC). I was with Tac HQ as IC Prisoners. The rebels were believed to have established a HQ in Muara Lodge.
A Coy, minus one platoon (companies had four platoons with the Sp Pl being converted to a Rifle Pl), was to approach Muara from the land in PWD lorries. Bn Tac HQ, the HQ Coy Composite Group, plus the attached A Coy platoon, were to go by sea in SS Higgins (the Brunei river car ferry) and 2 x Police River Patrol Boats. They were to sail out of the Brunei River and be positioned off the coast opposite Muara in the early hours of the morning, ready to approach in time for the troops to hit the beach at daylight with 2 x RAF Hunter aircraft providing FGA cover. The SS Higgins was worked on throughout the day by S/Sgt Hayter (REME) and his fitters to erect steel sheets around the railings for protection of troops embarked.
Fri 14 Dec 62
0100 approx. The sea party embarked at the Brunei car ferry pier and departed to be in position off the coast in time for the dawn assault.
0300 approx. The road party departed to get in position for their assault from the land (south) side of Muara.
0445 approx. The sea party began its approach to the Muara beaches.
0500 approx. The Police Patrol boats made it to the shore and disembarked their passengers on the jetty for them to proceed rapidly inland towards Muara Lodge. The RAF Hunters flew in low along beach, but without any recognisable targets they didn’t fire – they just did two low passes at high speed. Unfortunately the SS Higgins car ferry was held up by the strong outgoing tide, then got stranded on a sandbank about 200 yards off the beach and had to wait until mid-morning for the tide to go fully out before the soldiers were to be able disembark into chest-high water and wade ashore! By the time the SS Higgins troops, including Tac HQ, arrived at Muara Lodge at about midday it had been secured by A Coy’s road party and the Police Patrol Boats sea party, all without opposition as it was established that the rebels had abandoned the place the day before. So ended the Muara attack and the whole force returned to Brunei town in the PWD lorries.
The SS Higgins remained stranded on the sandbank for many years until it finally broke up.
Sat 15 Dec 62
In the morning I was put in command of a road convoy of Shell petrol tankers destined for Seria, now that the town had been secured by the QO Hldrs. I had a Landrover, a couple of sections of Gurkhas in a PWD truck, and 2 x Ferret Scout Cars of the Queens Royal Irish Hussars commanded by Lt David Brook. The trip was uneventful, except for a tree across the road beyond Tutong, which we thought may have been an ambush so we deployed to clear the area, but it turned out to be just an obstacle to block the road. We removed it and proceeded to Seria, arriving at about midday. I dropped off the Shell tankers and went on with the Gurkhas to join B Coy in Kuala Belait under command of Maj Terry Bowring with his HQ in the re-captured Police Station. B Coy was under command of 1 QO Hldrs.
Sun 16 Dec 62
I was appointed OC 8 Pl B Coy, the platoon commander being on Long Leave. The platoon was the Sp Pl (3” Mor Sect, Wombat A/Tk Sect, MG Sect) now established as a Rifle Platoon but with its support weapons available. My Pl Sgt, a 3” Mor man , was a Rai (I can’t remember his name), which was unusual in a Western Bn at that time, but he was exceptional and over the next couple of months taught me more about operating in the jungle than I would have learnt on the remainder of the Jungle Warfare course that I had left early.
In the afternoon I received information that the area rebel commander had returned to his house. At dusk I located the house and carried out a close recce with my Pl Sgt.
Mon 17 Dec 62
Just before dawn 8 Pl surrounded the house and I, my Pl Sgt, and two Gurkhas went in and arrested the individual while he was still in bed. He wouldn’t tell us where he had hidden any arms so the platoon searched the house and grounds and eventually found his shotgun, plus a captured Police rifle and ammunition, under some planks of wood in his back yard. We returned to the Police Station where the prisoner was interrogated by the Police. In the afternoon I had to escort the prisoner to Seria and hand him over to the QO Hldrs. Subsequently it was rather galling to see in The London Illustrated magazine featuring the Brunei Rebellion, a photograph of the QO Hldrs escorting the prisoner under the caption ‘Queens Own Highlanders capture the rebel leader of the Kuala Belait district’!
Tue 18 Dec 62
B Coy was ordered to fly from Anduki to Tawau, in North Borneo (now Sabah), in 2 x Beverley aircraft with our 4 x Landrovers, departing at 0400 to arrive at Tawau at first light. We were to patrol the palm oil and pineapple estates, where the majority of the workers were Indonesians, to ‘show the flag’ and dissuade any extension of the rebellion in Brunei. The aircraft touched down and taxied down the runway as the rear doors were opened and the ramps lowered. While the aircraft were still on the move, the Landrovers were driven down the ramps followed by the Gurkhas who doubled down to take cover in the drainage ditches either side of the runway. Without stopping or turning around the aircraft accelerated and took off in one unbroken movement. The Gurkhas rapid deployment was most impressive and the whole manoeuvre was completed in about two minutes. As the sound of the aircraft faded we heard cheering from the airport terminal – a single storey building. We looked up to see the British Resident, his entourage with their families, and the good and great of Tawau, all cheering and clapping. B Coy quickly recovered from their fire positions, got into three ranks and marched to the terminal building, where Terry Bowring reported to the Resident. We were then entertained to a sumptuous buffet breakfast and made to feel very welcome. We were accommodated in a local school, given maps of the area, and started our programme of patrolling. The Indonesian workers waved to us and were generally very friendly. After 48 hours we were recalled to Brunei on 20 Dec.
20 Dec 62
B Coy arrived in Brunei by Beverley aircraft in the morning. In the afternoon we redeployed by river to Limbang where we relieved L Coy 42 Cdo (led by Capt Jeremy Moore – later General of Falklands fame). They had carried out a daring and costly river assault to save the Resident and his wife, Dick and Dorothy Morris, who were being held hostage and threatened with death. L Coy dealt with the sizeable rebel force (estimated 350) led by Saleh bin Sambas, an ex Brunei Police Field Force Sgt (weapon training instructor), who was responsible for most of the RM casualties (5 x killed and 6 x wounded) with an LMG fired from the roof of the Customs building into the landing-craft as they came ashore. The Resident and his wife were rescued and 15 rebels were killed and 50 taken prisoner.
Limbang was actually in a piece of Sarawak that separated Temburong the eastern part of Brunei from the rest of Brunei to the west. We were housed in a school building on the Limbang Road, a laterite road that went to Temburong that became known as the ‘Temburong Trail’.
We spent our time searching for Saleh bin Sambas and his henchmen who had fled after the Royal Marines assault, and also conducting Hearts & Minds patrols both in vehicle and on foot, to reassure the local people and hopefully gain some information about the activities of the rebels.
In the first week 8 Pl ambushed Saleh bin Sambas’s house which was built in a disused quarry into the hillside on the side of the Temburong Road about 4 miles from our company base. It was believed he would be tempted to return at night to his gorgeous young Brunei/Malay wife and two young children. We approached through the jungle and I established the ambush in the jungle edge on the lip of the quarry surrounding the house, about 40 feet above it and 30 yards from it. We lay up short of the target while I carried out a recce with my Pl Sgt and Sect Commanders and subsequently moved into our ambush positions at dusk. I was awoken the next morning by activity among the soldiers. I crawled forward and looked down into the disused quarry at back of the house only to see Saleh bin Sambas’s beautiful wife, naked from the waist up taking a shower under water cascading from a bamboo pipe. It was all I could do to restore the soldiers’ ambush discipline! We had noticed several piglets and chickens free-ranging around the house. There was a real danger of them giving away our presence if they detected any of us. After 10 days in ambush, without Saleh bin Sambas making an appearance but with the distraction of his wife regularly taking a shower below us each morning, we withdrew through the jungle back to the road a mile away to be picked up by vehicles. When we paraded back at camp to clear weapons etc, I heard a little squeal so ordered all packs to be unpacked. I discovered a piglet and 3 chickens! How and when the men managed to catch these and keep them quiet I just don’t know. I was furious and gave the very embarrassed culprits a serious public telling off for disobeying orders and jeopardising the ambush. After a suitable pause to let my feelings register, I then ordered the platoon to produce a fresh pork & chicken curry supper that evening, to which we would invite the Coy Comd, 2IC, CSM and CQMS. My order was met with broad smiles from everyone! We ate very well that evening.
The first tip off we had was about a jungle camp in the hilly jungle about 4 miles south of Limbang that was discovered by a local hunter. 8 Pl was tasked to investigate, so I got the local hunter to lead us to the camp, taking every precaution in case it was a trap. It turned out to be a temporary jungle camp for about 10 people and occupied for only a few days, no doubt built when the rebels fled Limbang.
My 3” Mor Sect was ordered over the next few days to periodically mortar the hillside jungle towards the area of the enemy camp we had just visited. This was intend to disturb any enemy in that area and keep them mpoving.
A couple of weeks later we went to investigate a group of caves high up in the same hills but further away. We had been told about them by the Police from information they gleaned from the locals so again we took a guide. It was a flog through the jungle and quite a climb getting to the caves, and again we approached very carefully. We thought they had been occupied by the same group from the previous jungle camp. Judging by the state of the fire embers they had been vacated only a couple of days earlier, so we were unlucky.
After about 3 weeks Terry Bowring handed over command of B Coy to Maj Noel Fordyce from the 2nd Battalion. Naturally, given the situation and conscious that he was a ‘newcomer’ to 1st Battalion, he made a great effort to get to know the company very quickly, and the Gurkha Officers responded well to his rather different style of leadership.
Finally, in the first week of January, we had information from a fisherman on the Temburong River that he had found a new track from the river bank which led to a camp in the mangrove swamp that had been built fairly recently. 8 Pl deployed in a couple of Assault Boats and we established a 10 days ambush in the mangrove around the camp. It was extremely uncomfortable sitting up in the mangrove branches, being attacked relentlessly by large and ferocious mosquitos. Also the buffalo-leeches in the murky water the size of small eels were lethal. They came through the water at the slightest movement and latched onto our legs through the material of our trousers with ease; they being able to penetrate the tough skin of buffalos our trousers provided no protection.
Our discomfort was increased on the fourth day (mid January) when it started to rain very heavily indeed and continuously – monsoon like. After two days the water level started to rise visibly. I decided to call off the ambush to prevent the platoon being cut off. It wasn’t possible to get back to the river to be rescued by boat because it had overflowed and the water was too deep. I requested helicopters to lift us out from the nearest landing area on a piece of higher ground that was still clear of water, but this was not possible. What we didn’t realise at the time was this was the beginning of the most disastrous Limbang floods in living memory. We had no choice but to walk out to the nearest laterite road about 4 miles away where we could be met by vehicles. We cut poles to feel our way through the now waist-deep, and rising, very murky water. In places the water was up to my chest and deeper than the height of some of our soldiers who had to be lifted on poles stuck through they shoulder webbing straps by two people. Eventually, when we reached a rubber plantation bordering the road we were heading for, the water was too deep to continue. My Pl Sgt got the platoon to chop down a row of rubber trees, always planted in dead straight lines, and drop them against each other like dominos forming a sort of bridge structure for us to make our way out to the road. It was a brilliant idea. After some hours and a lot of hard work we managed it and were picked up by vehicles.
The Battalion’s attention had to switch from military operations to emergency community aid. Longhouses and other buildings were being swept down the rivers, all of which had burst their banks. The Limbang River was now as wide as the eye could see in both directions. D Coy (Maj Bob Watterton) were deployed up-river to Danau and Medamit. Bob did some outstanding work, at times risking his own life, for which he was awarded the Royal Human Society’s Bronze Medal.
I was sent to establish a radio rebroadcast-station a long way up-river. Cpl Danbahadur Gurung (Sig Pl), Rfn Bagbir Pun (my orderly) and 2 x Riflemen were taken in a Royal Marine Gemini power boat driven by Lt David Storrie RM and one Marine. We finally found a longhouse on raised ground that was above the water level that had risen to just below its flooring. As we travelled it was distressing to see the amount of debris floating by continuously and to see dead water-buffalos that had been trapped by their necks high up in the branches of trees. We were dropped off with our signals equipment and 10 days rations and established communications, after which the RM boat returned to base. Our job was to report the state of the river daily, and pass on information about aid requirements gleaned from the locals during my trips out with them in their long boats. After a week we were recalled to Limbang as the state of the floods had receded.
At the end of January all military patrolling came to an end as the post-floods clear-up began. A couple of weeks later in early February we were relieved by 1/7GR and the Battalion returned to Singapore.
So ended the Brunei Rebellion and my first experience of operations.
Saleh bin Sambas was captured by 2/7GR on an island in the Brunei River when he and Yassin Affandi, the Brunei rebel commander, plus a few of henchmen, tried to infiltrate back into Brunei Town in May 1963. They had returned from having fled to Indonesia after the failed rebellion. They were held as political prisoners in Jerudong Jail for a number of years.
I returned to Brunei as Adjt 1/2GR in 1967-68, and again as Comdt 2/2GR in 1980-81 my final tour in the Regiment. It was during this last tour that I discovered Saleh bin Sambas was the Senior Customs Officer in Limbang!
Fascinating first-hand account of what it was like to take part in this operation; thank you Bruce!