The Indonesians were continuing to try and destabilize the fledgling Federation of Malaysia. So to meet the possible threat of invasion it was decided that 2 Para should be sent to Borneo. Prior to the battalion's departure Lieutenant Colonel Eberhardie decided to send me and a sprinkling of officers and NCOs for a refresher course at the jungle warfare training school in Singapore. About two weeks later the battalion followed me and we trained them up. The battalion was crash-coursed through. One of the platoons that joined B Company, of which I was Company Sergeant Major, hadn't even finished its recruit training at the Depot. It had another three weeks to go, but they decided they would send them out as reinforcements and their final three weeks were to be completed in the jungle instead of Wales. So we had these 19-year-old boys as a platoon.
We really hammered it in the jungle for that period, really did give it stick. Chippy Woods taught them tracking and we all had to learn ten Dyak words a day; like food, water, enemy, tracks, wounds, everything — so that every single soldier had at least 50 words in Dyak. We were tested on them every day. We realised that a hearts and minds campaign was more effective in the long run. So off we went to Borneo. We were choppered in from Balai Ringin to relieve the Jocks (The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders) at Plaman Mapu. Because we felt we hadn't got down to really showing our soldiers what they should expect, we set up our own little battle school. We pushed each platoon in turn, with all its officers and NCOs, through this mini-battlefield. We made it as realistic as possible and used live ammunition. Unfortunately, two men were killed in separate incidents, which was very sad and everybody was unhappy. But everyone knew that those who'd been killed had done the wrong thing; they hadn't kept their heads down. Their deaths pressed the point home very quickly. It really switched on the young men, young NCOs and officers who had never heard bullets whizzing round their ears. It showed them how to react, which was later to prove an essential factor.
The position we'd taken up was completely unsuitable from a military point of view. For a start it was only 1,000 yards from the border, so that everything we did was overlooked. It was also rat-infested and overgrown. But we steadily began to improve it and started patrolling. Our modus operandi was ten days out on patrol then 36 hours in base. During those 36 hours we still had to defend our base. As the CSM I made sure the first thing we did when a patrol came back in was give everyone a tot of rum; then they had a shower, de-loused, got new gear, read their mail, had a couple of big hearty meals, because this was the first cooked food they would have had in the period, then a reasonably good night's sleep. But they still had to do their sentry-go and everything else. The next day they were briefed and got themselves ready for the next ten-day patrol which started that night. So the pressure was very much on. It was killing. Our goal was to get the guys to the peak of physical fitness, maintain it, then ask them not to eat cooked food, drink tea, smoke or speak for ten days. Not only to the young soldiers but across the whole board, it was a new discipline in all sorts of ways.
During this period in the confrontation, Sukarno felt in his dreams that he had to make the one big, bold move, and if he could make it and succeed he reckoned that the emerging Malaysia would come over to his side. All sorts of activity had been reported and we knew something was up; incursions and incidents were happening all over the place. Because we were vulnerable we realized that we were getting more activity in our area than in any other. Subsequently we heard that Sukarno thought that a victory against the Paras would be the coup that would really make headlines. Our patrols brought back reports of enemy preparation for an attack in our area. You know, large bodies of troops in the local kampongs and clearings being cut for mortars. All we could do was stay alert, knowing that something was going to happen. Then of course it hit us. It happened when the young recruits were on their 36-hour changeover. So we had a young recruit platoon, which was below strength, with their platoon commander and sergeant away. But we had a mortar section with two mortars, a company headquarters, the signals, the medic, and an extra officer called Thompson who was standing in for their platoon commander, and we had an artillery FOO (forward observation officer) and that was us. Thirty-five in all. It was normal drill, our circle was split into a Y shape and in each triangle there was a GPMG (general purpose machine-gun). So there were three GPMGs manned right the way through the line.
I'd just got my head down in the CP (command post), when the attack came. No one undressed to go to sleep, you always wore your boots, your trousers and your belt order. The only thing I had done that night was to take my shirt off. They'd opened up with their artillery, mortars, machine-guns and rockets and just blasted it straight into one of the segments. They knew exactly where they wanted to hit and took out one segment of our Y. This was the area they were going to assault. I bounded out of bed. It was pitch black, blinding with rain, it was a monsoon, so it was pissing down. Outside, I was eerily confronted by Kelly, who was the GPMG gunner where the enemy had put the majority of their fire. He had been hit by three bullets down his skull, but was still alive. They'd gone about one-eighth of an inch into his skull so he was completely deranged and thought we'd been overrun. He stuck his SLR (self-loading rifle) in my belly and said, 'I'm going to blow you away.' I took him down to the CP. I came back up to realize that the enemy had taken a whole position out and were advancing. We had to put in a counter-attack, so I called Thompson and said, 'Get your men together, sir, and follow me — you don't know where it is, I'll lead the way and show you where you put a counter-attack in.' 'Right, sergeant major.' He was following me with his men when a mortar bomb landed in the middle of them, wounded him and several others, leaving only two men on their feet. I told one of them, a cook corporal, to put up illuminating rounds to show what was happening. He put about three up and was taken out by mortar fire. I was yelling to see what was happening on the left where Mick Bourne was. He was holding that front, but all the rest were going down so I thought there's only one thing that's going to get them out and that's the GPMG. I ran across, got a hold of it and banged half a dozen belts on, yelling out to Mick that I would give him covering fire if he could launch an assault from his perimeter. The enemy didn't like the GPMG very much so Mick managed to push them out from his side. The enemy now really switched on and realized that we had driven them back down into a gully. They realized where the firing was coming from and launched a platoon attack on me and the gun pit. I was just firing away like billyo but they still kept coming and coming. One of the enemy was only two yards from my gun before he died. He'd been wounded twice in the thigh in the first assault and had tied a tourniquet round it.
They should have massacred us. They really thought they'd win through on their superior fire power. They came straight in firing their Kalashnikovs. Although the conditions underfoot didn't help us they did more to thwart them because they were coming up a slight incline. Had they had a dry purchase they'd have overrun us on the first assault. But eventually they stopped because Mick had gathered the fire of the other section and was hitting them as well so they fell back down the gully again. I then got someone else on the gun which had been hit four times by bullets. The radio set by my side had been shattered, but I didn't realize then I'd been hit and was blind in one eye. It was still pitch black with mud everywhere. I then raced around, picked up some wounded, took them down to the CP and then took a resupply of ammunition and spread it to the rest of the guys around me. By this time I think there were, on the position, only about 15 of us standing.
The enemy then tried to launch a further attack which we managed to beat off. We'd lost one mortar but the FOO was now firing the remaining one straight up in the air and bombs were landing about 30 yards away on the enemy, which was where we wanted them. I asked for volunteers to take a patrol out and clear the lines and, God bless them, to a man they said they'd go. So I selected three and off we went. We cleared the position around the perimeter and then came back in, by which time the first of the helicopters had arrived with the quick reaction force. Then it all started. There was so much activity it was untrue, people coming in, helicopters, the doctor. They couldn't believe what they were seeing. The lads standing, cuts and wounds, no shirts, just their trousers and boots, with mud everywhere. It must have been a sight.
There was this swathe cut through the jungle, with lots of blood and a trail of equipment, everything discarded by the Indonesians fleeing back to the border. The blood trail was there for three days. Somehow, we had repulsed what was believed to be a full assault by an elite Javanese battalion group on a position 35-strong.
The doctor caught me and stuck a needle in my arm and whacked me on the helicopter and that was the end of that (the battle had lasted about two hours in all). When I got out of this helicopter with the other wounded an old chum of mine, Jack Tapp, saw the state of me, blood pouring down, and he said, 'You can't go to hospital like that — stand against the wall and get your kit off.' So I stripped down to nothing and he turned a hosepipe on me, swooshed me down with this bloody hosepipe! But it was only a holding place really and they couldn't do anything with me because I needed full hospital treatment. Apparently, while I'd been firing the GPMG, the radio set by the left side of my face had been shattered by a mortar and a cloud of shrapnel had gone straight in the side of my head. When they finally finished with me I was deaf in my left ear and blind on the same side.
Of all the young men I remember from that battle McKellar really stands out. His father was an exporter/importer in Scotland and his son had written to him about the prospect of setting up in Malaya when he'd finished with the army. His father had come out to see the area and agreed with him. I found him in my second rush round the positions. A piece of mortar had hit the front of his head and almost taken it right off, but it was still sort of held on by sinew and skin. All I did, in the middle of the mud, was to close it, just like a door. I thought, 'The guy's dead,' but he was still breathing — so I carried him to where Collier was, who had also been wounded. I told him to hold McKellar's hand because he wouldn't last five minutes. When I was put onto the helicopter, McKellar was there as well, still breathing and holding on. When we got to Singapore they put him onto a life support machine and I expected them, at any second, to say, `McKellar's gone.' But no, he was holding on. Then his mother and father came from Scotland. The doctor made them come and see me, because I didn't think they should see him, particularly the mother. In the end she agreed not to, but his father said he must. Up he went, and put his hand through this sort of envelope window in the machine, and held his son's hand, and as he did so, his son died. I think that boy had been waiting, 'I'm seeing my father in Singapore and I must stay alive until that happens.' His parents said, 'Do you think he'll be happy here?' I said, 'I think he'll be very happy here.' Three days later we buried him.
This article is reproduced from Max Arthur, Men of the Red Beret, (1990) Hutchison (ISBN 0-09-173931-4), by kind permission of the author Max Arthur.