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40 Royal Marine Commando

Based at Burma Camp Malaya

1962 to 1966


Serudong Memories

Some memories of an A/E in Sabah 1964 with 40 Cdo. RM

by Patrick Walker

Now back again in Malaya, preparations were put in hand to return to Borneo. But before this I was sent on two courses, one on regimental hygiene and the other on water supply and purification. Because of these courses I would miss the Unit's sailing departure and had to join them on completion.

The new operational area this time was Sabah, (formerly North Borneo) and was a maze of mangrove swamps and tidal estuaries, a totally different type of operation to our previous tour in Sarawak.

Having successfully passed the two courses I flew to Labuan and spent some days under canvas waiting for a flight to Tawau, which eventually came. On being offloaded there I was collected with two others by an Alouette helicopter and taken to the new headquarters camp at a place called Bombali. Because I drew the short straw I was the one who had to sit in the seat which faced backwards, so did I not have much of a view through the perspex front.

I probably would not have been so calm had I known that one of the other passengers was Sgt 'Crash' Evans, so called because he was a survivor from a civilian aircraft crash on Malta and had walked away from two helicopter crashes in various locations! He was my new AE Troop Sergeant.

Some time was spent working on improvements to this camp and also clearing a large area down the road to make a new campsite, but there is one memory that sticks in my mind. There was a limited supply of cereal for breakfast and invariably what was left was Shredded Wheat.

You soon found out why it was always this that was available, because it usually had a good dose of weevils hiding inside. As you poured on the milk and broke open the husk they floated to the surface with all legs going. You could use the spoon to carefully ladle then out but it took so long That in the end it was far easier to crunch them down with the food: they had a slightly bitter taste but I don't think they caused any harm! Shortly after this I was shipped out to the A.E. detachment at a place way up the mangrove swamps called Serudong Laut. This location was reached by shallow draught patrol boat. After several hours negotiating mangrove waterways you arrived at two jetties, one at high level and the other much lower. The reason for this was there was quite a rise and fall of the tide, the lower jetty being under water at high tide. The main task was to rebuild all the defensive bunkers, repair dannert wire, and a lot of electrically operated explosive devices. These wires invariably got cut during frequent practice shoots.

It was here that we first came across the American Claymore mines. They came in beautifully made wooden boxes with the stencil Vietnam on the outside. The bodies of the mines were packed carefully in tiers, the detonators were in a separate compartment and the generators for the electrical current by which you set the mines off were coiled elsewhere in the box.

They had green coloured, curved plastic bodies somewhat like a small transistor radio in size with fold out legs on the bottom so they could be pushed into the top of the ground and then aimed in the desired direction. There was a legend 'front towards the enemy" on one face to help make sure that it was not set up in the wrong direction. They were quite heavy for their size, do doubt due to the 800 steel ball bearings backed by a pound or so of plastic explosive. The idea was to site them facing down tracks or likely approach routes used by guerrillas and have the control wire led back to a command position from where the device could be set off. They made a fearful bang when detonated and the 800 ball bearings sprayed out to the front like a giant shot gun blast. The thing you had to watch out for when setting them up was that there was a pretty substantial back blast as well.

As a location, Serudong Laut had the usual almost circular defensive perimeter, with many sand bagged bunkers and two mortar pits all interlinked with a defensive wall about four feet high between the positions. We faced across the tidal river all along our front and within the perimeter were a couple of the original Dyak timber and attap-roofed two storey buildings which had been a store for local passing trade. One big drawback was that on quite a regular basis when it had rained up river, and combined with a high tide, the whole area was under 4" of water and when this went down it left a film of scum behind.

The rifle troops changed over on a regular basis, as did the A.E.s but I soon became the longest serving inhabitant. Something, which was never satisfactorily explained, was causing a fever, that attacked many of the men stationed there. It was so serious that some had to be casevaced out, while others lay under their mosquito nets delirious with very high temperatures.

Although nearly everyone caught it to a degree, for some reason I never did. Whether water borne or transmitted by mosquitoes it was never really resolved. The medical world called it Laut Fever because they could not decide exactly what it was.

We were visited by a BBC film crew for a couple of days who were making a documentary to be called "Jungle Green". They took general scenes, some of us cutting down trees to make defences, went across the river with a patrol and then left. The only problem was it was to be shown only on BBC 2 and at that time parts of England still could not receive it, so no one in our family ever saw it.

Because one of our main tasks involved a lot of concreting floors for the galley and ancillary stores, we spent quite a few days going up river to collect sand and gravel. These trips up the river to collect timber and ballast were very welcome to get away from Serudong. The river was still tidal for quite some distance up stream and navigating was quite hazardous since there were numerous hidden and half-hidden tree trunks and obstructions and large boulders.

One man had the job of crouching in the bow and with hand signals tried to direct the coxswain around the worst of the timber dangers. Even then we had some hair-raising scrapes and judders across some unseen items. Fouling the prop or breaking a shear pin was dreaded.

We used to see beautifully coloured jungle birds fly gracefully across the water to the nearby trees, in most places the jungle came right down to the water's edge. Occasionally you would startle a large lizard several feet long basking on a sand bank and you could see it trying to decide whether we posed a threat before gently slithering into the water and disappearing.

During periods of heavy rain, and in Sabah that had to be seen to be believed, the rivers rose many feet in as many hours, and the gradual scouring of the banks left many trees perilously close to the edge. Those that could hang on no longer crashed over and ended up floating down stream complete with gigantic root ball attached, it was these that invariably snagged on some previous victim and ended up causing a log jam, with the result that when the water level went down the channel became impassable. Occasionally we had to resort to blasting to shift the more tangled of the jams.

In October there was a tragic incident some way up the river from us when Marine Deering got into difficulties whilst crossing the river and was drowned. The supply helicopters were told to keep an eye out for his body that after a few days had still not been recovered. Then late one afternoon, about five days later, it was spotted drifting down stream in the current. Three men went up river in an alloy assault boat to recover it and put it in a bag and brought it down to out location. Volunteers were asked for to help with getting it up onto the jetty and then when the emergency helicopter came, to carry it outside the defensive perimeter to the heli-pad and load it on for transportation to Tawau Hospital.

I was one of four volunteers and it was a very sad day. After loading the stretcher with his body late in the afternoon onto a Wessex that had come to pick it up, we all ducked down under the rotor wash while it took off and mentally said our goodbyes to a comrade who none of had ever known.

As a result of this accident we were detailed to go up stream some days later in order to construct a suspension bridge of some 130ft wide so that patrols could cross the river in more safety. We started by making two "A" frames that were cut from local timber and then anchored these to the bank on each side of the river to convenient trees. Then using our assault boat we transferred three long lengths of rope from one side to the other and secured these under tension from a winch. We now needed two volunteers to work their way from one side to the other, tying and securing the 'V' shaped in-fill lashing which would provide the rigidity, and also link the two top handrail ropes to the one on the bottom on which you had to place your feet.

Thus it was that I found myself swinging crazily some thirty feet above a fast flowing river, one minute almost horizontal and facing down, and the next almost horizontal and facing up from the crazy oscillations. Your weight on the bottom rope of course tended to cause it to sag considerably more than the handrail ropes, which made it very difficult to reach and secure the linking ropes using a prussic knot.

However once we had secured a percentage of the binder ropes the whole structure became considerably more stable, and then the rest of the section could finish off the work.

After two days we were complete and from then on the rifle company could get across with dry feet. How long it lasted before the climate and the ants got to it I don't know, but it should have been named Deering's Bridge as a fitting memorial to a brave man.

Our work continued on the rebuild of all the defensive positions back at Serudong until everyone had been replaced and there was suitable accommodation for each section to have somewhere dry to live.

There was one amusing incident when for an early Christmas dinner, amongst the rations delivered, were several frozen chickens. When the chef came to the point of preparing them as they thawed out, he noticed one of them had moved. Sometime later when it had completely thawed out, the unfortunate bird, which had had its neck partially wrung, managed to walk about.

Thus it was that we acquired 'Henrietta' as out mascot. She hadn't a single feather left because she had been well and truly plucked, but at least she had all her internal organs. Over the next few weeks her feathers grew back and she used to strut about the location and it was then that we could see that she was actually a cockerel!

Of Course we realised our mistake so she was renamed "Henry" His party piece was just before dawn to stand on a crate and try and crow but because of the effect of having had his neck wrung what came out was "Cockadoodal aaaaaaaaaachk"

After what he had been through no one had the heart to dispatch him. There were no guerrilla contacts from this location while I was there, though some of the rifle companies on other areas quite close were luckier.

Eventually we left at the end of the two and a half months, being relieved by 42 Cdo. and returned to further training in Malaya.

© Copyright Patrick Walker 2006....All Rights Reserved

This article is also published on the Britains Small Wars (Borneo) website