The History of the

4th and 7th Royal Tank Regiments

 

Annex C Confrontation, A Personal Account

After his National Service Richard Hardman returned to the Regiment annually for 2 1/2 to 3 weeks as part of his annual Reserve Officer commitment. In 1965 and 1966 this coincided with the Fourth’s involvement in "Confrontation" against the Indonesian Armed Forces. This annex contains some of his impressions

CONFRONTATION. 1962-1966

SOME THOUGHTS ON THE LATER STAGES OF THE CAMPAIGN FROM AN AMATEUR ARMOURED CAR TROOP COMMANDER.

BACKGROUND:

4th Royal Tank Regiment (with whom I had served originally as a National Service subaltern and on whose reserve I then served for 23 years) had converted to an armoured car regiment in the early 1960s and in that role were stationed in Malaysia from the autumn of 1964 to the autumn of 1966.

RHQ and Headquarters Squadron were based in Seremban, Malaya, B Squadron were based in Singapore,with troops operating in Brunei and Sabah. A Squadron were in Kuching and Bau in the First Division of Sarawak and C Squadron were subsequently based in the quaintly named fort of Wompadon at the Eastern end of Second Division. The Squadrons in Sarawak initially formed part of 99 Gurkha Brigade and subsequently of 6 Infantry Brigade.

As part of my reserve commitment, I spent 2 ½ to 3 weeks in First Division of Sarawak in 1965 and the same period in Second Division in 1966.

THE BIGGER PICTURE

The principle of the conflict itself was very simple. Indonesia (in the shape of President Sukarno) had taken objection to the creation of the Malaysian Federation and intended to destroy it. We, as the responsible post-colonial power, had the task of stopping him. I personally had no involvement in the rounding up and removal of those Indonesians who landed on the Malay mainland. The task of the 28th Commonwealth Brigade, of which the Regiment’s A and C Squadrons formed part, was to deny the Indonesians any intrusion into Sarawak.

THE SMALLER PICTURE

Although there was no sign of it on the ground (or, to put it more accurately, in the "ulu", as the jungle or rainforest was affectionately termed), the border between the two countries had been clearly established historically. Unfortunately, from a military perspective, it had been established in a wholly inconvenient position. The whole mountain range (our part of which rejoiced in the name of the Kling Klang ridge) was covered in either primary rainforest or secondary jungle (so that no dominant fire position could be established).

Kuching

All the high ground fell on the enemy’s side and we were left between the mountains and the sea. From our very localised perspective, the position was made even more tactically inconvenient by reason of the fact that the only road linking Kuching (the capital of Sarawak) with Simmangang at the eastern end of Second Division (where the road ended) ran parallel with the border, so that one had the sensation of always being broadside on to any potential trouble. This topography and the fact that there was only this one road (or dirt track). ), also had the effect of severely limiting anything which we could usefully do as armoured car Squadrons in what, by reason of the nature of the conflict, was inevitably a defensive role (albeit, so far as the infantry were concerned, an aggressively defensive one).

Soft Skinned

Our tasks, as armoured car squadrons were to provide convoy escort for soft skinned vehicles moving along the above road and fire support for the infantry units in their forward forts. Convoy escort was normally carried out by Ferret scout cars armed with browning machine guns and fire support by Saladin six-wheeled armoured cars. The topography was totally unsuited for any other sort of armoured car activity, as movement off the road was virtually impossible . We had been told that the British government had sold Saladins to the Indonesians, so that, theoretically, we had the somewhat curious position of the enemy having exactly the same armoured vehicle as ourselves. However, in view of the fact that there were no roads at all leading into Sarawak from Indonesia in our sector, the chances of encountering the enemy version were absolutely nil.

Far more high-explosive rounds were fired at the enemy positions by the Royal Artillery than ourselves, as they kept up a regular bombardment from either pack-howitzers or the occasional 5.5 inch field gun.

On a couple of occasions we were asked to lay and provide a night ambush, but I was mightily relieved that nothing chose to come our way, as this was not a speciality for which we had been trained and radio communications were generally pretty terrible. We seemed only to be providing free supper for the indigenous, malaria-carrying mosquito.

I also vividly recall being invited to take my troop out early one evening on what might be termed an "armed walk" with the Marines of 40 Commando, whose fort we were intended to help defend. They had only recently moved into their positions and wanted to familiarise themselves with the jungle tracks down which any potential attack might come. The outing could have turned into a complete disaster.

Their leaders managed to get lost, we were without radio communications due to the atmospheric conditions and we spent an extremely uncomfortable night being eaten by mosquitoes and leeches at the bottom of a ravine into which the Marine C.O. had fallen in the dark. We eventually found our way out of what was almost certainly Indonesia by wading down a rat-invested mountain stream which we knew would eventually bring us to our own forward positions. The final ignominy on my part was to have my rear end heavily injected with penicillin as a precaution against lepto-spirosis.

All in all, I and my troop were probably of more use operating in our own armoured vehicles and leaving those versed in infantry skills to exercise them independently. (At that particular stage, I also had a personal feeling that the Marines might be better operating from an aircraft-carrier, but our little episode was no doubt a rare aberration on their part!).

THE WAR ON FOOT

As indicated above, Confrontation was primarily an infantry conflict, much (if not all) of it conducted far inside Indonesian territory, with the result that there were few, if any, incursions into Sarawak by the enemy once it had become clear to them that they were not welcome even in their own territory if they came within a couple of miles of the border.

In the earlier days of the conflict there had been one or two intense battles well in front of our established forward positions and both in these and in the subsequent stages of the conflict the UK Brigades had the considerable benefit of the following:

1. The Gurkhas.

The role of the Gurkhas in establishing both an impenetrable defensive patrolling pattern and at the same time striking fear into the enemy, always seemed to us lesser mortals to be crucial to the success of the whole campaign. We were told (and I have no reason to doubt the truth of this) that the CO of the relevant Gurkha battalion had sent a runner through the jungle to inform the CO of the opposing Indonesian battalion that if any of the Indonesians stuck so much as his head out of their camp, the Gurkhas would cut it off.

The Indonesians were also in no doubt that he meant what he said and complied accordingly. The last Gurkha V.C. had been won in one of the earlier fire fights and I, for one, found them frightening enough, even though they were on our side and we were working with them.

2. The Australians.

At one stage we had a very professional Australian battalion in our sector. My recollection is that they were using their involvement in Borneo as a training for their commitment in Vietnam and this was certainly also the case in relation to a young Australian Armoured Corps Officer, who was attached to our C Squadron in 1966. (I also remember him, fondly, as being terrified of spiders, which seemed odd for some one coming from the land of the funnel-web and the other nasties that Oz seems to have). I remember being particularly impressed with the Australians’ skills at interpreting the different footprints made by the two sides in the mud floor of the jungle.

3. The Ibans.

My most vivid memory of my brief Borneo excursions is that of the stone-age, head-hunting tribesmen, the Ibans. I never knew quite what the "Great White Rajah" James Brooke and his descendants had done to earn this loyalty, but the unswerving loyalty and assistance which we had from the Ibans was at times almost embarrassing. They were, of course, involved in a war in their own back garden, which they knew like the proverbial back of their hand, but they were unaware of the fact that they were indirectly supporting the cause of Malaysian federation, which itself would prove to be a threat to their primitive stone age existence.

If the Indonesians made any attempt to move towards us, our commanders would be told about it and steps taken to halt the threat.

Sandbagged Forts

The consequence for us in our sandbagged forts, was that threats of attack never materialised and our role was limited to putting down gunfire from the Saladin 76mm main armament onto pre-determined targets. However, this was done without any ability to see where the shells were landing or their effect and under circumstances where we were always reasonably confident that such hostility would not elicit any retaliation.

In the fort at Sungai Tengan, where my troop were required from time to time to provide firepower for the Marines, I remember being kept on alert one night by their constant loosing off of small arms and machine gun fire, but I felt wholly convinced that this was more due to the Marines’ inherent warlike qualities than to any real threat from outside. (No infra red or night vision capability was available in those days).

HEARTS AND MINDS

As was becoming the norm in situations where the British Army was not at war with the local indigenous population, much emphasis was placed on the "hearts and minds" campaign of endeavouring to gain the confidence of the locals. So far as the local Chinese were concerned, this probably had little effect, as they were the only dangerous internal threat through the Clandestine Communist Organisation, which had attacked one of the local police stations and were a constant subversive presence.

Iban Longhouse

So far as the Ibans were concerned, this was almost certainly unnecessary in view of their unswerving loyalty towards us. However, it meant a series of fascinating trips through the jungle with my troop to visit the Iban longhouses or kampongs in our vicinity. I have many memories of these visits that remain vivid. The rows of human heads hanging from the ceiling rather like modern hanging baskets (and always passed off-when queried- as "Japanese"). The ritual dances by men covered in war paint, dying of alcoholism in their forties and looking eighty.

I remember the pigs and cockerels tethered or running loose under the "promenade deck" of the longhouse; being offered a raw fish head out of some filthy river as a special honour, and trying to work out some way of not eating it; my troop (despite all the horror stories of its potency) drinking the kampong dry of tuak and the headman sending a messenger to the next kampong to replenish the supplies; being asked through our interpreter whether one of the Iban women could touch me, as she had never seen anything so white and thought I was a god. A few children in the kampong who had semi- European features were clearly the result of some previous closer contact between east and west. Another abiding memory of our contact with the tribes people was in relation to the laws and customs by which they continued to govern themselves.

sandbags for our  fort

We used tribesmen to help by filling sandbags for our fort. Somehow, one of them came to be in possession of a portable radio and the headman was of the opinion that the Iban in question must have stolen it. The punishment from the tribe was to have one or both of his hands cut off. I never know to this day whether our representations to the effect that it had been thrown out and was free to be taken had been successful in preventing such a punishment. We learned that if a woman died in childbirth, she would be treated as a vampire and put to death.

Every morning we had a queue of local women carrying babies outside the Squadron sick bay bunker . The most prevalent form of death amongst children in the rainforest was bronchial pneumonia and they believed that any illness they might have contacted (which could in any event have been through coming into contact with the white man) could be cured by our pills and they were duly issued with what the Squadron medical corporal could spare by way of aspirin or anything similar. On the other side of the hearts and minds equation (i.e. the morale of those participating on behalf of H.M. Government), I also remember hearing that there was to be a jazz concert in one of the camps in the Kuching area by Acker Bilk and his Paramount Jazzband. This sounded moderately unlikely, but turned out to be true.

Jazz Concert

CONCLUSION

There can be no doubt that Confrontation was a military success for the British Army and its Commonwealth allies. It was perhaps a war, which we were always going to win given the benefit of our previous experience in the Malayan Emergency, the fact that the very widespread indigenous population was almost entirely co-operative, the boldness of its infantry commanders in taking the fight to the enemy in their own territory (helped greatly by the increasing use of the helicopter) and the fact that we were never trying to conquer or acquire the enemy’s territory for our own permanent occupation. For the armoured Troop commander, one had to recognise that ones role was always going to be secondary to that of the infantry (and, to some lesser degree, the Artillery). So far as the role of the Regiment itself was concerned in the Borneo campaign generally, it also seemed to me that it was subject to less of the intensity or constant hostility the Regiment had encountered only a few months previously in Aden where many of the enemy were the local population. It certainly seems to me to-day, looking back on it, to have been a conflict very far removed from the type of all-out war, with the horrors of which so many members of the current Regiment have to contend on a daily basis.

Richard Hardman. June 2010



Site Designed by Manx Telecom