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