Article on the Battle of Plaman Mapu by Lt Col John Fleming

Article reproduced with permission from the Parachute 2 Club Newsletter, No 90, July 2015.

This year is the 50th Anniversary of the Battle of Plaman Mapu. Lt Col Jon Fleming commanded B Company 2 PARA during the battle and has written this account.

Having just gone on Christmas Leave, 2 PARA, on New Year’s Eve of 1964, were recalled to our base at the then brand new barracks, Bruneval Bks, in Aldershot, to be there by 1200hrs on 1st January 1965 - not a good time for a Scot’s battalion! One member, who was travelling north by train, having spent his Christmas on guard duty at the new barracks, saw out of his train window at Grantham station (or it may have been Newark), on a WH Smiths hoarding in bold, black lettering: “2 PARA recall to barracks for FE operations”. He immediately got out of his northbound train and got into the next southbound one to return straight back to Aldershot.

 The battalion was all packed up for a Far East exercise anyway. This turned out to be an operational tour instead. We few to Singapore, (Nee Soon Barracks), and were all there by 8th January. From 10th January to 27th February 1965 the whole battalion went on an intensive, crash jungle warfare course at The Jungle Warfare School in Kota Tingge in Malaysia. Early in March we sailed to Kuching in North Borneo arriving there on 9th March. We then moved, in convoy, to Balai Ringen, Bn HQ, from where B Coy with a detachment of 81 mm mortars commanded by Sgt John McDonald, were deployed forward, by helicopter (Belvedere & Whirlwinds then) to Plaman Mapu: there were no roads. We had to make our own maps. We took over command from 1 BW, I think or it may have been 1 A&SH, on 12th March. Several members of this Club participated in this campaign. ‘A’ Coy, commanded by the late Jock Daniels were in Nibong: ‘D’ Coy commanded by Brian Barnes were in Gunan Gajak, where there was artillery support (a 5.5” gun I seem to remember).

In Nick van der Bijl’s book, “Confrontation”, he opines that Plaman Mapu was ‘to a great extent the focal point of Confrontation’. Whether it was or not is best left to the historians to decide but the fact remains that after Plaman Mapu the Indonesians never again tried to take out a company base. Politically, Indonesia wanted to attend the Afro-Asia Conference, in Algiers, in June 1965 from a position of strength. They felt that capturing a British company base over the border in Borneo, during Confrontation, would enhance their case.

It was pitch dark and pelting with rain when the enemy attacked at just after 0500hrs on the 27th April 1965. We were outnumbered by nearly 10 to 1, though we did not know that at the time. One platoon was back at Bn HQ training; one platoon was on night ambushes and patrols; one platoon plus a section of mortars and Coy HQ were in the company base. The platoon in the base was, in the main, young 18/19-year-olds straight out of Depot PARA. The enemy of 3 companies of RPKAD, experienced, elite troops entered and subdued the villagers of Plaman Mapu kampong, cutting the telephone ‘early warning’ line from the Headman’s top house to the dug-in Coy CP, on the night of 25th/26th April. Early on 27th April they moved out; positioning a company strength fre base SSW of our position, which was on a conical hill, across a deep gully amongst bamboo: together with 2 companies of assault troops positioned to the SW of us, flanking both sides of the fre-base. The assault troops had to attack uphill through thick undergrowth over slippery ground, through 2 lines of dannert wire and claymore mines as obstacles, on a wet, dark night. They had a cold meal on their start line - empty US “K” ration pack wrappers were found afterwards. The fire-support group opened up; though most of their fire was too high. They were aiming, mistakenly and luckily for us, at the unoccupied, silhouetted structures above ground (the company stores, cookhouse, canteen, eating area, the 2 water towers and the day-time sentry tower). Tracer rounds sped harmlessly into the night sky. We all “stood to” very quickly, as rehearsed often, in our dug in trench/sleeping bunkers. The frst assault came in: successfully negotiating the slippery slope and the obstacles, including the exploding claymores, to gain a foothold in the SW mortar pit. This had already been hit, killing Pte Smith and grievously wounding L/ Cpl McKellar and wounding two more. That mortar was out of action. By the time that CSM John Williams with a small section got there, having first disarmed a frightened and delirious sentry, who thought that Williams was the enemy, they found a few Indonesians standing around the pit, aimlessly wandering about, appearing not to know what to do next. Williams grabbed a weak section. including Captain Nicky Thompson, GLOSTERS lent to us by Bn HQ, aiming to eject the aimless intruders. Sliding and slipping their way across the muddy ground they were mortared and wounded, including Thompson. So only a handful reached the pit. With the two remaining men, one of whom was a cook, L/Cpl Collyer who manned the 2” Mortar pumping out illuminating fares and Cpl Jackie Baughan, giving covering fre, Williams using his fists, rife butts and everything else which came to hand ejected the enemy who sped headlong down the hill from whence they had come.

Following a short gap in the action, during which ammunition was quickly replenished, a second, stronger assault came in, this time from the SE. This was repulsed by grenades, accurate shooting from the trenches, mines and CSM Williams bravely seizing a GPMG and fring from the hip at the Indonesians, who were hauling themselves up the slippery slope by pulling on the barbed wire. Baughan, with his section worked their way through the trenches to counter attack. This prevailed and the enemy were thrown back down the hill, leaving their dead behind on the hill, though not before they had breached our defences for the second time that morning. In the CP I was trying to master events. Twice I managed to ‘escape’ into the illuminated melee to see for myself what was happening. There were mortar bombs, claymore mines, balindasides, rattle of machine gun and rife fire going off all the time. Slithering about I never made much progress, beyond, I think, the cookhouse before being recalled for the umpteenth time to speak to Bn HQ. The CP was mortared and rocketed several times; the Tilly lamps swinging crazily around and dust from the sandbagged ceiling clogging the air. Casualties: sodden, ashen-faced youngsters continued to arrive in the CP to be patched up. Through all this noise and confusion plans were being formulated and orders given, to drop “cut-off” parties from the Brigade Reserve by helicopter to harry and block off the retreating enemy to their border crossing point.

At first half light, 0645hrs or so, the enemy retreated back to the border. The battle had lasted 90 minutes. Clearing patrols round the perimeter continued to have a few skirmishes with the stragglers. We continued to harry the retreating enemy with mortar and gun fire. Tell-tale trails in the jungle provided ample evidence that their journey back home was far from comfortable. The enemy left behind a number of dead around our position: thus exploding the myth, to all that they never invaded.

The experiment (and apparently it was an experiment) of Lt Col Wibowo and his RPKAD failed and it was never repeated. It failed because we were well trained, disciplined, motivated, rehearsed, well equipped and supplied. Supreme acts of bravery and resilience were displayed at the time when it mattered. Our new, young soldiers acquitted themselves particularly superbly that morning. I think that all the survivors grew up and ‘walked a little taller’ after that April morning. Tragically two were killed: Pte Smith and L/Cpl McKellar, who died in Singapore BMH. We suffered eight wounded, including CSM John Williams, all of whom were evacuated. We inflicted thirty-two dead and wounded on the enemy. CSM John Williams was awarded the DCM: Cpl Jackie Baughan the MM and Pte Mick Murtagh the MID all for their conspicuous gallantry in their own ways during the battle.

Parachute 2 Club Newsletter, Issue 90, July 2015

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