A Year in 42 Commando
Singapore and Borneo
Having arrived at Sembawang Barracks in late November, after a long flight from England, I wondered how many familiar faces I might see on my first day. I was assigned to 'Five' Troop, 'L' Company, and was soon greeted with a few cheers by the crowd that usually gathers to welcome new arrivals at the accommodation block. It didn't take long to settle into life with a commando unit. When you're a long way from home, people seem to find a closeness uncommon to civilian life, and lasting friendships develop. Everything is shared and typical of this was Reg Chapple (our section CPL), who shared his family and his dinner with us on Christmas Day. It was a generous gesture and one which was much appreciated.
Training was accelerated ,following the announcement of our move to Sarawak in late January and it was with certain apprehension that we relieved 40 CDO at Lundu. The journey was made by boat, truck and finally helicopter. That same night we were out on patrol, as word had reached Headquarters that Indonesian border terrorists were heading into our district. Is it always going to be this hectic?
After three days patrolling and three nights of ambushes, there was still no sign of the enemy and we were recalled for a rest at HQ. It was a luxury to have a shave and a cold shower, and even canned beer tasted good. So went the routine of three or four day patrols and a rest. The local villagers were very friendly and with a big smile might offer to shin up a tree to cut down a coconut or pick a pineapple from their plot of land. Their simple, but peaceful, way of life seemed worth preserving to me.
All the time in the jungle the weather was very humid and our clothes were soaking with sweat, even if we weren't exerting ourselves. The monsoon season was the worst with heavy rain, which sometimes lasted for several days, and this of course made the going very rough underfoot and there was no escaping the mud. Jungle boots were alright for keeping out the leeches but certainly not waterproof and so our feet were constantly wet. It was only when we stopped for the night, was it worth changing our socks and giving the shriveled up flesh a respite. Leeches were a constant menace and a stab with a cigarette end seemed the best solution. After crossing a river, a good search of the body would reveal several of them.
When the sun came out, life was a bit more bearable but our clothes dried on our bodies and only time would tell if this had any drawbacks in later life. Some patrols were easier than others, not on our nerves or the way we went about it but if it was near the coast the tracks were easier and the jungle not so dense. Mind you, the mangrove swamps threw up a different problem when being searched, as they had to be patrolled at low tide and they were the perfect place for the enemy to hide their boats. Here you learnt to try to keep your feet on the tree roots, if not it was mud up to your knees. Swarms of mosquitoes made it even worse, the repellent had only limited effect. Early evening was the time to make up our minds where to camp for the night, and chosen carefully, it could bring a little relaxation and a steaming hot stew. Cooking with the solid fuel tablets was easy and a hot cup of tea to finish brought thoughts of home.
I was 24 and this was my second commission as it was for Reg Chapple, Jock Balderstone, and Jim Gooding. For the rest straight from England, Scouse Gardiner, Oggie Howes, L/CPL Davis and Jock Findley, it must have seemed a million miles away. Nevertheless we were all in it together and learning all the time about how to survive the rigours of jungle life.
A combined operation, where the whole troop of roughly 20 would be sent out, would bring the added thoughts of ' safety in numbers'. Here we would have local tribesmen, employed as trackers and lead scouts. They certainly made the patrol easier with their knowledge of the local area. We were able to cover the ground faster and if we were in pursuit of the enemy so much the better, as we had them on the run.
But patrolling had its lighter side too, like crossing rivers high up on a rope bridge, wondering if anyone will sway too much and fall in. Or suddenly coming across a beach with deep blue sea and taking it in turns to have a quick dip. That was the best swim I ever had! Back at camp at night the rats in the atap of the basha roof used our mosquito nets as a short cut to the ground, and flying frogs made their incessant noise. Playing the Ghurkha's at football we learned the meaning of passing the ball before they got a chance to tackle. They were always enjoyable games though.
There were times when our numbers were rather restricted, and then the section would be divided into two small units. Three men would be sent out in the morning, and then the remaining four or five in the afternoon or evening. So it was that on the 20th February the section was split and L/CPL Davis, Jim Gooding and myself found ourselves on a routine patrol to search random 'bashas'.
We came across one in particular that the owner (a Chinese) did not appear keen for us to investigate. With an uneasy feeling, Jim and Davis inspected it while I kept watch with the Bren gun. I had a prickly sensation down the back of my neck and unlatched the safety catch & cocked the gun just in case. The three big sacks of rice and two outboard engines in the basha just didn't appear right as the basha was some miles from the sea, so we withdrew.
Kevin Gardner unloading rifle
firing range Nee Soon
After reporting our find of rice and outboard engines at the Chinese basha to 2nd Lt Christie Miller, it was decided to send the rest of the section to watch and report of any happening that night. Under the command of Reg Chapple they set off in the early evening to give them time to reach the basha before dusk and the rest of us settled down to relax after the day patrol. About 22:30 we heard what we thought was gunfire in the distance but bamboo cracking has a similar sound, so we couldn't make our minds up at first, then came a couple of deep explosions and we put this down to hand grenades. Conformation of this came from the villagers themselves when they put the window shutters over their windows, which were normally open. They knew something was up.
Questions were going over in our minds, was it our lads caught in ambush, had they set one themselves and above all were they alright? All went quiet for about an hour then our answer came in the form of Oggie Howes, who had come back with the news that they had been caught in a fight and that CPL Chapple had been killed and the rest seriously wounded at the same Chinese basha. Oggie himself was wounded and several bullets were hanging from his arms, which were taken out by the medic. A radio message was relayed to Company H.Q. and it was decided to send a helicopter to the village at once., even though this entailed flying in the dark and it duly arrived with torches being used as landing lights. The plan was to try and bring the wounded back to the village and so get them to Kuching Hospital quicker.
Things did not work out this way though, as it was up to the rest of us to effect a rescue and decide what to do when we got there. The rescue party consisted of 2nd/LT. Christie Miller, L/CPL. Davis, Jim Gooding, myself and Oggie Howes, who insisted on going back. Well anyone who has been in the jungle at night would know how pitch black it is and so as not to get separated we decided to tie a length of rope onto the back of our belts that was held fairly taut by the man behind, and this enabled us to keep some distance between ourselves but keep contact at the same time. There was the added danger of coming under fire from the enemy if they decided to ambush us on the main track while effecting the rescue.
After what seemed like hours, we finally reached the basha about 1:30 am, and saw for ourselves the fight the lads had put up and they had the Chinese owner, who we had spoken to earlier in the day, prisoner. The place was an absolute wreck, and bullet holes were evident all over and the back room walls had gaping holes in them, no doubt from the hand grenades. Jim started to attend the wounds, Scouse's legs were bleeding badly, Jock Balderstone had arm wounds but seemed in good spirits and morphine was given to them both to ease the pain. Not so for Jock Findley though, as he had several bullets in his chest and was coughing blood so could not be given it, and we did our best to make him as comfortable as possible. Reg was in a small room and nothing else could be done until the morning when the helicopter could land and evacuate the wounded.
The rest of the night passed without incident but looking around, each man had his own thoughts and not many words were exchanged. The section mourned the loss of Reg as indeed the whole Commando unit would.
The enemy had retreated and the only sign we could see were blood stains leading into the jungle so they had at least some wounded. We had radioed our position to the rest of the company and at first light came the helicopter and both the troops' other sections on foot, led by CPLs Bell and Mick Fulton with some Iban tribesmen, who quickly set off in pursuit of the enemy. The helicopter left within minutes of landing and quiet returned again.
A police patrol arrived on foot with some more Iban tribesmen & proceeded to interrogate the Chinese prisoner and after a lengthy search of his outbuildings found the rest of his family. He also revealed that he was harbouring 20 Indonesians and admitted that the three Marines who had first searched his place in the day were being watched by them from their hiding place all the time .
The question remained as to why the Indonesians hadn't opened fire or attacked the three of us during our search of the basha in the morning but after further questioning the Chinese owner pointed out that we carried the large automatic machine gun, (Bren) which I had cocked and was witnessed by the platoon commander, Kasson Bin Somento, where as the evening patrol only carried rifles and Reg Chapple's sub machine gun, which the Chinese had noted and relayed to the Indonesians. Also the evening patrol did not have a radio to summon help if anything went wrong - a very contentious point as we thought that all patrols should have had this vital piece of equipment but they were not always readily available. A valuable lesson learnt!.
Sleep doesn't come easily after an experience like that. Your mind keeps repeating the events over and over again, and changes your whole outlook. On reflection, the hit and run tactics of the Indonesians made you more aware of the need to be constantly on the alert when on patrol, the jungle being an inhospitable place with so many localities ideal for ambush. With this in mind, the mental as well as the physical strain took its toll. In terms of training, we were more than a match for our foe, which was proved during our pursuit of them after the attack at Sekembal. Within days, nearly all were either captured or killed, including the commanding officer.
Landing at Rasau
Another contact was made with the enemy at Rasau where we had a joint Company Headquarters with 1/6th Ghurkha's. A large party of Indonesians was returning to the border, having been caught up in a fight in the Sempadi Forest and opened fire on us just after we had returned from a patrol. This came about as we shed our equipment and proceeded to go for a shower to wash off the jungle's grime.
Now a shower in the jungle consisted of a pump by the river that relayed the water along a pipe to a central point, which in turn filled a bucket that you then tipped over you by way of a chain and the waste water was washed away down a gully. The only privacy being a hessian screen around three feet high. We had just started to shower when bullets started coming through the screen from the direction of the river and we dived for cover in the gully but were saved by a returning Ghurkha patrol, who charged down the hill at them killing four and capturing another two. Lucky escape!.
Further action followed in
the forest near Kampong Rukham when a tracker team, led by Sergeant Howe,
stumbled on an enemy camp after the tracker dog failed to 'warn' the patrol
and we were called upon to follow up. This proved extremely difficult
through near virgin jungle and the tracks petered out on the border at
We handed over the Lundi District to the 1/6th Ghurkhas at the end of March and made our way by minesweeper to Kuching for a two week spell to rest and reorganize ourselves.
It was nice to meet up with Howes and Balderstone again, and to know that their injuries had healed, although the others were still in hospital, having been flown to Singapore because their injuries were becoming difficult to heal. It would have been nice to have visited them to re-assure ourselves they were doing okay. We managed a run ashore in Kuching, where we had a few beers, played football, volleyball and regained our spirits. After this brief respite, it was off to Padawan for more patrolling. While we were there we realized just how much we relied on the helicopters for vital supplies, the surrounding jungle being very thick vegetation and soul destroying wherever you patrolled.
The river patrols were also used in the supply chain for the various locations but were always in danger from ambush so here again you had to be always on the alert. One such patrol took us to a charcoal kiln, with a very long jetty and this was on our list to search as an empty kiln would provide an ideal hiding place. We pulled up at the jetty and were just about to secure the boat when a huge bull terrier dog came bounding towards us, yellow pus oozing out of one eye and saliva dripping from it's mouth. 'What to do now'? The situation was saved by the kiln owner, who having seen us point a rifle at the dog because of it's aggressive manner, shouted, which calmed it down. We then explained our purpose and were allowed to search all buildings and kilns but there was no sign of the enemy, so we withdrew.
Other river patrols took us down small tributaries, which were good places to lay up and watch for other boat movements on the main river but these would be mostly locals going about their daily business, each village being reliant on their boats for trading and essential supplies.
We had a brief rest at Semengo where entertainment by the David Whitfield show proved to be a spirits booster and a great night ensued with him singing some great ballads; not bad for an ex navy man. Film shows followed on other nights and interest in the Pathe News showed an emerging group called 'The Beatles' singing 'Can't buy me love', on the Island of Jersey.
We were pleased when June arrived and saw us on our way back to Singapore, with a whole fortnight's leave. It was anyone's guess how we were going to spend it, but we all agreed on the need to let our hair down and get the jungle out of our system.
Group photo L Coy 5 Troop
Training began again two weeks later, with helicopter drills, jungle warfare tactics and some welcome practice on the firing range. Not that it was all work and no play, because most afternoons we found ourselves free. You could do very much as you pleased and it didn't take long for a volleyball game to get going - with jungle rules of course. The spirit in which these games were played again emphasized the comradeship between all ranks with sport being a common outlet. During July the inter -company athletic meeting took place, with fierce rivalry between teams. This caused great enthusiasm and encouraged some outstanding performances on the track and field and many records were broken.
The family feeling shone through when the wives and children joined the afternoon activities. The three-legged race for husbands and wives being the highlight as each blamed the other for the inevitable tumble. Football, rugby, swimming and boxing were all sports in which the unit excelled and all had their followers. At big matches everyone seemed to be there to give their support. In this way, many happy days were spent and by the time July met August, we were all aboard HMS Bulwark for an exercise.
Our object was to stage a landing on the east coast of Malaya, using Wessex helicopters and landing craft. It was a very successful operation.
On the first day in September, we celebrated the 'Corp Tercentenary' hosted at the main hanger in Sembwang. It was an all ranks ball with plenty of good music from 'The Crescendos', dancing and a load of laughs. It was significant though, that the beer, which flowed freely, was paid for in the morning with giant hangovers.
The next venture proposed for the unit, a run to Australia, was curtailed by vicious riots in Singapore, staged by Malay and Chinese factions. We did our duty as a peace keeping force, but the experience was still frightening, especially as the weapons used by both sides bordered on the barbaric. Typical of these arms were clubs festooned with nails, heavy chains and knives, and in fact anything destructive they could lay their hands on. It was a very ugly time.
suspects at Musi
Days passed and the riots quieted and with it came an end to my first year with the Commando unit. It had not passed quite as I had anticipated, but eventfully, and with many unexpected surprises. Some regrets, yes, but the experiences I gained and the lessons I learned are locked in my mind forever. We were due back in the jungles of Borneo for another six month stint soon so more training was due which meant all the survival techniques being put into practice once more, before my return to England in May 1965.