SOME MEMORIES OF 249 SIGNAL SQUADRON (FARELF) DURING THE BORNEO OPERATIONS
by BRIGADIER PHF WEBB MBE
 
 
 
 

My earliest dealings with the State of Brunei were in March 1963. The Chief Signal Officer FARELF, Brigadier Rex Robinson sent for me as the then OC of 249 Signal Squadron. He told me to go over to Brunei, meet the Head of Telecommunications, Chief of Police and British High Commissioner, find out about the internal communication and the possible location for an Army radio detachment, should it ever be necessary to implement the FARELF reinforcement plan to combat an internal security flare up. I was to travel as a civilian and the local inhabitants must not know the purpose of my visit.

A few days later I arrived at Brunei Airport, was met by a member of the High Commission and was then driven off to meet the British High Commissioner, Mr. Dennis White, who had kindly offered me accommodation. Mr. White met me at his official residence, a large old fashioned bungalow, standing in beautiful grounds, on a hillside overlooking the Brunei river. It was almost like taking a step back into a Somerset Maugham novel, at lunch the two of us sat in a huge dining room, one at each end of the table, and were waited upon by at least three servants. After lunch the Rolls Royce arrived to take us to the office, which had already been pointed out to me at the end of the garden about four hundred yards away. The servants, six or seven of them, lined up and Mr. White, plus small white dog and myself were assisted into the car. The servants all stood to attention and the vehicle slowly drove, on a circuitous route or about half a mile, to the office.

During the afternoon and following morning I had a series of meetings with the people I wished to see, all of whom greeted me with incredulity as if to say, how could anyone be so stupid as to ever imagine an internal security threat arising in Brunei . I remember Mr Parrot, a GPO officer on secondment from London, and the Deputy Head of Brunei's Post and Telegraph Services, being most helpful and well informed. One of the Sultan's brothers was the nominal head of the Department. I decided that the most suitable place for a rear link wireless detachment to be sited would be within the Police Compound in the centre of Brunei.

On my return to Singapore I reported back to the Chief Signal Officer and then forgot about Brunei. Several weeks later yet one more Far East Reinforcement Plan arrived at my office in which I was tasked with providing a land rover mounted WS 53, and a detachment of one NCO and three men to provide rear link communications for a reinforcing company of infantry which would be sent to Brunei in the event of any unrest.

In November 1963 I was on my travels once again. On this occasion it was as an observer on an exercise in Thailand and whilst up on the northern borders at Uban word reached me that a revolt had broken out in Brunei and that British troops had been sent there. The next thing was a telegram from the CSO telling me to return to Singapore as quickly as possible. On arrival I learned that the rear link detachment under a splendid NCO Corporal Holdsworth, who was subsequently awarded the BEM, had failed to establish communications back to Singapore and that HQ FARELF were only receiving very sketchy information about what was happening in Brunei. Of particular concern was the fate of the Shell Oil Company employees at the Sierra installation. The CSO had just returned from Brunei having been flown there in a two seater fighter aircraft, and when I reported to him was told I was to be the Force Signal Officer and that later in the week Major General Walter Walker would be taking over as Force commander. My task was to get to Brunei as quickly as possible, arrange for my Squadron to follow, recce, and find a suitable site for a Force Headquarters and see that a proper communications network was established in time for the General's arrival.

On arrival I found Cpl Holdsworth and his detachment in the Police Compound and the town by that time was reasonably quiet, Azahari, the leader of the revolt, and his men having fled into the jungle. There appeared to be a complete lack of understanding amongst various senior officers as to the requirement of a Force HQ and in particular the accommodation and real estate required for the communications. After attempts to fob me off with several highly unsuitable locations, I discovered a satisfactory site namely The Girls' High School. It had classrooms suitable for offices, a large dining room and kitchen, laboratories, dormitories which contained comfortable looking beds which unfortunately we discovered later were only five feet six inches long, washing facilities etc. It also had large playing fields ideal for an aerial farm. After considerable wrangling I got permission for this complex, the girls were all sent home and I and my Squadron moved in.

From then onwards the Force and the HQ expanded rapidly, and my command included RN ratings and RAF personnel as well as my own Squadron. The one Handspeed Morse Link back to Singapore soon became completely overloaded and was duplicated and then triplicated. Subsidiary Headquarters were established at Kuching and Jesselton and linked by Handspeed Morse. Telephone communications within Brunei were connected up in conjunction with the Brunei P & T and the Headquarters soon had it's own automatic exchange. Everyone worked extremely hard and the spirit within the Signals unit was superb.
Throughout this very busy period I was the sole communications officer and enjoyed a favoured position as regards the Force Commander, subsequently the Director of Operations General Walker. He would summon me to his office or quarters at all hours of the day and night when he wanted to send personal messages of particular importance. One particular message I recall vividly was to the C in C relating to the proposed rundown of the Gurkhas of which General Walker at the time was the Colonel Brigade of Gurkhas. In his message he was extremely outspoken and when asked my opinion I said I thought it rather strong. He replied that what he had said was what he felt and that was what he intended to send. The message was duly transmitted and two days later a reply was received from the C in C. Every morning I made a point of reading all important incoming messages and when I asked the RAF Cipher Sergeant to produce the C in C's reply, he told me it was purely a personal message for the Director of Operations from the C in C and had nothing to do with Force HQ matters. It was practically the only message I did not see throughout my six months as Force Signals Officer but the General subsequently told me that it was the biggest rocket he had ever received. Suffice it to say not only was he summoned back to Singapore but also to UK to appear before the Chief of the General Staff Sir Richard Hull and very nearly sacked. A full account of this episode is contained in the admirable book "The Fighting General" by Tom Pocock.
As time went on the Force HQ diminished until there were only five officers plus the General remaining. Then suddenly trouble broke out with Indonesia and numerous incursions of Malaysian territory occurred leading to a rapid build up of the Force HQ again.

Soon The Girls' School was bursting at the seams and the communication network was sorely over stretched At this point there arrived from the UK radios, the WS. Dl1 with radio teleprinters. Unfortunately none of my Squadron had ever seen this set before, but thanks to FofS Dawes who came out from the UK, the detachment commanders and FofS Bradford quickly got to grips with the new equipment. Unfortunately the sets did not like the damp and wet conditions of Borneo and innumerable faults occurred which added considerably to my worries. Had it not been for the devoted service of technicians who spent hours in the cramped cabins, communications would have failed completely. As it was on several occasions Air Dispatch had to be used to get messages back to Singapore. Eventually owing to possible outbreaks or trouble in other parts of the Far East, particularly Thailand, it was decided to withdraw 249 Signal Squadron to Singapore where it would be ready for any emergencies and to replace it in Brunei by an ad hoc Signals Squadron from the UK. I handed over to Ross Clarke, a New Zealand officer who took the Squadron back to Singapore after about a month.

What are my lasting memories or Brunei? Firstly the wonderful experience of having trained 249 Signal Squadron in Singapore and Malaya for nearly two years and then having the opportunity of taking it to Brunei and working under real operational conditions. Secondly the morale of the Squadron and throughout my thirty years in the Corps, I never came across such a wonderful bunch of soldiers. They worked hard, played hard and gave me one hundred percent loyalty. I could not have asked for a happier time. Thirdly the honour of serving such an exacting, dynamic, and once you got to know him, friendly, General. Much of my subsequent advancement in the Corps was due to this man.