Chairman of 40 Commando Association
At first this seemed like an easy task, however as time has gone by and you have reached the age of almost 62 my memories seem to have dimmed but here goes.
It was 6th December 1963 and RM 21860 Brian Bartlett found my self at the airport for a flight to Singapore to join 40 Commando Royal Marines. The funny thing is I have no memory of the flight, what type of aircraft it was but the memory that is very firmly embedded in my memory is the arrival.
When that aircraft door opened the hot and sticky air hit you like a brick wall. We were transported by truck with our luggage to 40 Commando’s camp in Malaya at Burma Camp. It all seemed very quiet; the thought that run through my head was it seems quiet for a Commando Unit. We were shown to a small hut and told to leave our entire luggage and to follow the Corporal.
We headed of and found ourselves at the stores; we were issued with jungle green clothing, jungle boots, underwear, in fact almost every piece of equipment that you would need and of course a rifle with live ammunition. On return to our hut we were instructed to prepare for early departure the following morning in our jungle green clothing with all our equipment packed and our suitcases with our UK luggage placed in a storeroom.
So it was the following morning we returned to the RAF air base that we had arrived at from the UK except this time we boarded an Argosy Freighter aircraft we sat in canvas seats and flew a lot lower that the jet that brought us to the far east. I had teamed up with my oppo Peter Scott RM 21741, eventually we landed at an airport it was Kuching in Borneo.
We were told to disembark some were instructed to get in trucks however peter and I were instructed to get on to a waiting helicopter which promptly took off. After flying for a short while we hovered in a clearing several feet above the ground, our equipment was un-ceremoniously ejected from the aircraft closely followed by us jumping to the ground.
All this time I was wondering just what the hell I had let myself into; we were shown our defensive positions and told to “stand to” this I later discovered was normal procedure when we had helicopter activity either bringing in supply’s or fresh replacements.
Fortunately we only stayed at this base for about a week and were moved to our Company base at Bau, I discovered later it was normal practice for this to happen. This move back to base camp gave me time to organise myself and to get the latest buzz about what was going on.
I soon discovered from the old hands that the 38 pattern equipment was not very good for the long-range patrols but older 44-pattern was better. So I set about getting what I needed in readiness for our next move out of base camp. We only used the 44-pattern belt with pouches for magazines and a water bottle carrier and your machete. The small 44 packs were used for essential food, ammunition and a dry change of clothes for sleeping in and those little brown pumps that were issued.
Much later I was fortunate to get hold of some green parachute silk from which was made a jump suit which I used for night wear and of course was much easier to carry. Strapped to the underside of the 44 pack was our bedroll consisting of our “Poncho” (A big green oblong of waterproof material) used to make a “Basha” (Tent) to sleep under and our spare clothing and toilet roll (a green material with pockets in for soap, toothpaste, foo foo, (Pussers Talcum powder) and shaving kit and spare paper which would then be rolled up).
At Bau camp it was relatively comfortable, we had time to rest and recuperate, this was interspersed with guard duties. One of the main features at Bau was the lake, the RAF pilots of the Wessex Whirlwind helicopters used to use the edge of the lake to land this would save them the walk down from the heli pad up the hill to the back of the camp.
Our next visit to a forward position was to a curiously named place of Bukit Knuckle this was my first opportunity to get my self-sorted out in the ulu (jungle). Peter and I decided to buddy up again so when the instructions were given to pair up and make somewhere to sleep we set about the task. To give some idea of the type of place we had taken over, we were positioned on top of a hillock, around the whole site was a wall about 4 feet high and about 3 feet thick and we were positioned around this outer wall and given our arch’s of fire.
For several days we collected timber and branches, in fact the first night we stood to at our position and then slept on the floor. During that first night there were a few cries of Ahhhhh !! as people’s hammocks fell apart and they landed with a thud on the deck, followed by a string of the normal expletives.
The next day when we had time from our normal duties we started to build, the four very thick corner posts were sunk into the ground. We then fixed in a floor level so that when we sat on the end we were in the correct place for stand to. We continued to lay the floor poles, constructed a roof and covered it with a few acquired ponchos. At the back was shelving so that we could actually un-pack or kit for a change. The building was nicknamed the Hilton hardly surprising as it took us 3 days to complete construction despite the many requests from the SM to get a move on.
Daytime duties included collecting water, repairing the perimeter wall, marshalling chopper re-supply and inspecting defences. The main duties were long range patrols some lasting as long as 14 days, which would take us out of camp up to the border, where we would lay ambushes or follow intelligence information regarding the movements of enemy patrols. Sometimes we were tasked to intercept Indonesian Guerrillas who had attacked a local village.
Somehow during this time I ended up as a lead scout, quite how this happened I do not know, one thing I am fairly sure of I did not volunteer. This meant that I found myself way out in front on patrols with a local tracker and a Ghurkha carrying for a weapon a 12 bore shotgun. I do not remember asking what happed to the previous lead scout; I think I hoped that he had just gone home on a posting rather than anything else.
The first tour in the jungle was very eventful and after what seemed like an age we were relieved by 42 Commando and returned to Burma Camp.
It was common for units to do a 6 months stint in the jungle and then return to camp for some well earned leave, however once leave was over it was back to training again. I remember we did some training on river crossing and using assault boats “Exercise March Hare” at Kota Tingi. There is a story to this, when boating never ever let anyone know that you know anything about engines. Our metal assault boats were dropped into a big lake by a Wessex helicopter and blown into shore by the thrust of its rotor blades.
Once we had concluded our training the sergeant major looked for a likely candidate to take the boat back to the middle of the lake. Regrettably I was chosen not only because I new about engines but was also a good swimmer.
The plan was to remove the outboard engine once in the middle of the lake, put it back into it’s box secure the lid of the box and await the chopper and then hook the lifting straps to the hook on the underside of the chopper and then jump in and swim back to the shore.
However all did not go to plan, I had completed my part without a hitch, and had jumped into the water to swim back.
However on my way another chopper decided to hover just above me and despite my gestures for it to push off it continued to hover just above me actually pushing me under water.
Eventually the pilot realised what he was doing and lowered a line to lift me up out of the water, I thought great at least I will not have to swim ashore as by this time I was pretty tired. The chopper lifted me clear of the water and flew towards the shore but kept going and going eventually landing me on top of a hill with no kit and hardly any clothes. An enquiring voice said “where are you from lad” once I had explained they said “ you will have to wait to the rest get up here with your clothes and equipment, so I waited for what seemed like a lifetime, the moral being keep your attributes to yourself.
After leave some fantastic runs ashore it was time for us to return to Borneo, everything was packed and of we set.
This time I had a lot more idea what to expect when we returned, I was probably an old hand with experience as we had replacement for those who had gone home the replacements were straight from training as I was when I first joined the Commando. This time my equipment was top notch; I had made improvements to my 44-pattern kit whilst back in Malaya.
We started the normal routine of 4-day patrols and as lead scout I felt more at ease than I had during the last tour. I now had a nice canvas bag full of cartridges for the Remington pump action shotgun and had got to know my local tracker very well.
He had gestured to me one day that my pusser’s parang was no good, so he set about making on for me. Over the next several days he worked on a piece of steel which I think was part of a car spring goodness knows were he got that. It was flattened and shaped and finally sharpened, to say that the blade was sharp would be an understatement it was like a razor. He crafted a handle in the shape of a snakes head and a wooden scabbard all were beautifully crafted and finally assembled with the handle being glued in place, to this day some 44 years later it is still in tack and still very sharp.
The patrol’s were always interesting as you never knew what you would find, I remember on one patrol we had been out for several days and all of a sudden we came across an old train, obviously a relic of mining. We spent a lot of time chasing guerrilla’s back across the border sometimes they did not make it back, on other occasions we just could not catch up to them, we would see the sign’s as they dropped equipment to lighten their loads. One of the bases we worked from was in a new area of Northern Borneo, Sabah at a place call Kalabakan this is were all that boat training came in very handy, as we would start our patrols by travelling up or down river. One of the worst things was the orang-utans who would go crashing through the trees sometimes bringing on a hale of gunfire, I don’t remember if we ever hit any.
On those long range patrols you had to put up with the heat, which made your clothing wet with the sweat, your feet would be permanently wet with walking through water and you would have to put up with the mosquitoes and the leeches. So after a long days march you would endeavour to find a good stream and after the removal of your equipment you would dive in and wash first with all your clothes on and then with them off. Get yourself checked over for leeches and then dry off. This would be followed by the use of pusser’s powder. For most of the time your feet would look like a white wrinkled mess and the only relief was when you changed into your dry kit for the night together with dry socks and those brown boots, and if you were lucky a parachute silk jump suit. The one big drawback to all this was that as you only had to enough space to carry on rig for daytime and a change for night time you had the unpleasant task of putting the daytime clothes back on the following morning usually still wet and progressively as time went on they would stink a bit. Only carrying a light load allowed us to move much faster if we had to undertake a pursuit, as progress through the Ulu (jungle) at the best of times was pretty slow.
One of the main tasks on these long-range patrols was to lay an ambush, this we did quite often. It was the custom to have good firepower at each ends of the ambush to prevent escape and good concentrated fire in the centre ground for maximum effect. I seem to remember that we had been very successful on a number of occasions, however on one we achieved a good kill it was a wild pig so that day we all ate very well. The quality of the food provided on active service was in the most part dependant on who you had for a cook. I remember at one position we had a 3 badge marine cook who was absolutely brilliant, it amazed me that not only was the food great but that he had also built an oven, from which came forth pie’s and home made bread.
We would spend a lot of time at our main bases carrying out repairs to the perimeter walls and the huts. On one particular occasion I remember that the sergeant major had instructed us to move and rebuild a perimeter wall. When we dismantled the wall we found that it contained wooden boxes, at first we thought that they were boxes filled with soil but on closer inspection it was discovered that the boxes contained very big metal boxes somewhat like sardine tins only bigger, inside those were hundreds of 50 tins of cigarettes. Needless to say when it came time to return to camp in Malaya everyone who smoked had a spare kit bag full of tins of cigarettes, which by fair means of foul we manages to get through customs on our return.
There may be a few details which are not exactly correct in this effort to remember for which I apologies but the old grey matter is not quite as good as once it was, but one thing I hope is that one day when my grandson asks what did granddad do in the Royal Marines he will be able to read this and then parade my medals on a commemorative parade, as I have done with my fathers from WW1 and my brothers from WW2.
Some how I was one of the many lucky ones who made it back home, some did not and my thoughts are always with them for the ultimate sacrifice made for their country. The government today don’t give a dam for those who fought for their country and are quite happy to insult us by their actions.
In the jungle you can never relax, never be sure that up on that ridge or round that corner in the track the world won’t suddenly split open with machine gun fire. When camp is made before dusk and your back is sore and your shoulders ache from the weight of your pack, you still cannot relax. While you silently cook and whisper to your oppo or crawl into your basha at night, all the time you half wait for the sound of a twig cracking or a man crawling up the back towards you. As the days pass the senses become blunted and it becomes easier to relax but to still stay alert.