Article taken from The WIRE, March 1963
(Thanks go to the Editorial Staff for not only supplying this material but for allowing its use.)
Royal Signals under Fire in Brunei
Being an account of 249 Signal Squadron's part in the Brunei operations
During the first week in December, rumours were circulating gaily round the Squadron and all sorts of tasks and arid destinations were forecast. Most people thought we were off to India, and just a few were looking East. Eventually, on Saturday, 8th December, things started to hum. The day started with HF Troop being told to have one detachment complete at Seletar Airfield by 1400 hrs that afternoon. This was brought forward to 1200 hrs, but with inoculations, pay, weapons, equipment and ammunition to be sorted out, this proved impossible. By this time the Squadron was humming, and a detachment - Cpl Holdsworth, LCpl Cant, LCpl (now Cpl) Stevens and Sig Archer - were away at about 1215 hrs. On arriving at Seletar Airfield they joined two Companies of Gurkhas and were told at a briefing what was known of the situation (very little at this time). The "force" left for Brunei in a Beverly at about 1600 hrs.
Meanwhile, back at the Squadron, 621 Troop was busily preparing two tentacles to be on 12 hour standby. These were ready shortly after midday. Radio Relay Troop were told quite firmly that there was no commitment for them, so they all went home for the weekend. At 1930 hrs that evening, the OC, Captain Reggler, was summoned to GHQ and told to take a Foreman of Signals, technicians, radio relay men and linemen to Brunei to help maintain the civilian communications. The living-out personnel had to be rounded up, and the party eventually reached Changi airfield at 0330 hrs on Sunday morning. They left for Labuan, loaded down with kit, equipment, tools, a C11 and batteries in a Britannia at 0700 hrs, approximately.
Over in Brunei, Cpl Holdsworth and his men had spent a very nasty night. They landed at Brunei Airport on Saturday evening, not really knowing what the reception was going to be. At soon as the plane stopped, the Gurkhas were fanning out rapidly.
Inexplicably the rebels did not use this golden opportunity, even one truck parked on the runway would have prevented help getting in as quickly as it did. A truck load of police turned up, armed to the teeth, and the force moved out in convoy to the police headquarters. There were a number of prisoners already detained in the tennis courts in front of headquarters. Corporal Holdsworth was set up by midnight and calling out by 01.00 At about 02.00 the rebels opened fire and there were several casualties. A bullet struck the windscreen of the detachment's Land Rover and things looked rather grim. The detachment were soldiers, as well as signalmen, and they were blazing back at the rebels. At one stage the Land Rover was outside the defence perimeter. A patrol of eleven Gurkhas was sent out and was badly shot up. During lulls in the battle, the radio was manned, but no contact was made with Singapore.
As dawn broke, fresh firing broke out and troops were sent out to clear the buildings overlooking the headquarters. This was done most effectively and more prisoners were brought in. A crowd gathered on the Padang, but dispersed rapidly when fired upon. The defenders took a deep breath and took stock. An encouraging pep talk about how the rebels had no automatic weapons, was brought to a dismal close as an ambushed Land Rover was towed in with a neat row of bullet holes "stitched" along one side. Help was needed, and so was blood for the wounded. The detachment lined up with the rest and gave a pint. During the morning the Sultan of Brunei (heavily armed) went around saying thank-you. Corporal Holdsworth, not knowing who he was, replied: Oh that's all right Fred, anytime ..."! The day was spent trying to get through to GHQ,, but although they tried everything nothing was heard. Eventually they picked up some of their own Troop, on a detachment, which had opened up from Meiktila Barracks, and at last they could tell the outside world what was happening. This was Sunday evening.
Captain Reggler and his men had by this time reached Brunei; having changed to a Beverly at Labuan, they got in at about midday. There was no one there to greet them so, commandeering, two police trucks, They reported to the police headquarters. The party then split into two, one going into the main auto-exchange the other, with Foreman of Signals Bradford, up to the VHF site on Telecoms Hill. With no time to dig trenches, the jungle right up to the "doorstep" and the situation so confused, the chaps on Telecoms Hill were jumpy. There was a 24-hour curfew in force, but two policemen had been killed there the day before. This very nerve-wracking situation resulted in an accident which was, by the grace of God, not too serious. Corporal Hambleton, coming to relieve a sentry, tripped over the gate stop. To the sentry this sounded like the bolt being tampered with. It was pitch dark and pouring with rain. Suddenly the two came face to face round the building and quite naturally the sentry opened fire. Luckily, Corporal Hambleton suffered only flesh wounds and was back in BMH Singapore within 24 hours. Later that night Corporal Rodgers fired at a movement in the jungle and some time later a bloodstained rebel was found by a patrol. The next day trenches, were dug and fortifications built and then the lads got down to helping out with civil communications.
Back in Singapore, 621 Troop had not been idle. After the first two tentacles had been prepared on Saturday morning, nothing much happened until about midnight. Then word came that two more tentacles were required. It took four hours to get all the married people in. Everything was ready by 07.30 hours on Sunday morning. With no contact from Brunei, the situation was terribly confused, but eventually three Signalmen left for Seletar to enplane for Labuan and one signalman left to join Queen's Own Highlanders to act as their rear link. There were no 'planes at Seletar and the Signalmen stayed until the next morning when they were sent to Changi, where they boarded a C130 for Labuan. On arrival, it was found that Force H.Q. had moved to Brunei, and a telephone call to Brunei (well done, RR Troop) confirmed that they should all go there.
It was a bit of a squeeze getting three Mark S Land Rovers and trailers into a Beverly, but they did it and got into Brunei late that night. The 24-hour curfew meant staying at the air port until morning. The building was absolutely packed with men. In the whole airport, the only place left untouched was the "Ladies" but 621 Troop, not being in a delicate frame of mind, promptly filled this room up. The next morning they joined Corporal Holdsworth at the police headquarters and set about opening another link to Singapore. There was sporadic firing during the day. Corporal Hebden and his crew joined the 1/2 Gurkhas and were given a Leyland, 3-ton tipper (armoured) in place of their trailer. By Wednesday there were Royal Signals parties with Force H.Q., 1/2 Gurkhas, I Queen's Own Highlanders, 42 Commando and Greenjackets. These were the first few hectic days. It was the first time in action for most of us and proved to be a real test of initiative, resourcefulness and determination.
After those first few days, things began to quieten down for most of us, or should I say get back to normal for the actual work became more hectic. A great many more troops were arriving and it soon became obvious that the Police Station was far too small to accommodate the Force Headquarters. It was therefore moved into the main Government building and became 99 Brigade H.Q. Force H.Q. (the command of which had passed from a Major, through Colonel to Brigadier) was at the Residency.
was centralised and administration much more organised. Sergeant Green
and his small Signal Centre staff (including Lance-Corporal now Corporal
Watson, Signalman Lyon, Corporal Burrows and Signalman Walker) were working
double overtime to cope with the volume of traffic. This valiant little
team worked themselves into the ground beating even some of our hard pressed
operators in the number of hours worked. The war was now entirety outside
the town area and the only piece of excitement was provided by Lieutenant
Dudley, quaking at the knees, investigating suspicious movement underneath
a house next to one of H F.'s Detachments. Covered by keyed-up members
of the Detachment who had reported the movement and accompanied by a Gurkha
sentry, he crept forward and disappeared beneath the house. There was
a sudden scuffle and we all waited with baited breath (and itchy fingers),
but it turned out to be a dog. I think Mr. Dudley was more worried about
getting plugged by one Of us than any lurking terrorist !
May I pause
to relate one story before I forget it. Corporal Drew, very late one night
was searching for the Marines. In desperation he went into one office
and shook the figure sleeping there.
Conditions were very crowded in the school and this was obviously not going to he a very permanent H.Q. Major Webb arrived and very soon picked an adjacent girls' school for Force H.Q. It took about a week to organise and, 99 Brigade remaining in the first school, the Force Headquarters moved to their new location not before the RR and Line Troop boys had installed yet another telephone complex). It would be appropriate to mention here the excellent work done by Mr. Cyril Parrott. An ex-member of the Corps, Mr. Parrott provided valuable assistance both technically and logistically in his capacity as Deputy Director of the civil communications in Brunei. Not only this but he and Mrs. Parrott entertained many of the lads to a grand Christmas dinner on Christmas Day. This was very much appreciated by us all, especially as it was the first fresh food we'd had since we left Singapore and also we were all feeling a little homesick. For this and for their continuing hospitality, may I say a big 'thank you' on behalf of us all.
So we moved into our new location. This has become a joint HQ. More of the Squadron arrived and one or two of the chaps who came first are now on their way home. The place is bulging with Staff Officers and it's beginning to look more like GHQ every day. Things are still a little tight on the Signals side and one has to be prepared to do almost any job. Brunei Town is very small and has none of the amenities of Singapore. Still, at least we have no guards or parades to do. We have film shows most nights (projector permitting), there is talk of putting on a variety show and swimming parties are being organised. There are many rumours, but it does look like being a long stay here. I think to sum up the general feeling-we are doing an important job here in Brunei and after all that is what it's all about, but it will be nice when my relief arrives!
Congratulations to Signalman Dobson - now Lance Corporal Dobson. A very well deserved promotion.
EDITORIAL NOTE: It must be remembered that the foregoing article represents the " Brunei Operation" as seen by an individual and is supplemented by a considerable amount of hearsay evidence. It was written well after the event, and although it gives a very good general picture of the conditions prevailing at the time, too much evidence should not be given to the exact order or timing of events.