At midday on 8 December 1962, I was a member of a hastily assembled early response party forming a detached workshops of 3 Commando Brigade Royal Marines, just three vehicle mechanics, a chef, we thought eating was important, and me, the electrician. We sailed from Singapore early on 9 December and landed at the island of Labuan, off the coast of Brunei, a day later. Almost immediately we moved on to Kuching in Sarawak.
The expatriate civilians in Kuching welcomed us enthusiastically when we arrived at Kuching, and over Christmas we were entertained lavishly. The expats were understandably nervous following the revolution in Brunei and couldn't do enough to make our stay in Kuching a pleasant experience.
The Brunei rebellion began at 0200 hours on Saturday 8 December. Britain had a treaty with Brunei, but had no troops in the country at the time of the rebellion, so the immediate reaction was to get a force across to the Sultanate. Two companies of Gurkhas flew from RAF bases at Changi and Selatar. Some landed at Labuan Island, others were diverted directly to Brunei town. By the evening of 8 December, they had retaken the town and rescued the Sultan.
Although the main part of the rebellion was suppressed within a few hours, several small towns were still in rebel hands and the leader was still free. Some three hundred and fifty rebels had captured Limbang, on the border just inside Sarawak, and taken the British Resident and his wife hostage together with twelve other government officials. The rebels threatened to kill the hostages on the morning of 12 December. It was little wonder that the expatriates in Kuching were nervous
Lima company of Four Two Commando Royal Marines was tasked with rescuing the hostages and recapturing the town. The company was about half strength, a mere fifty-six men, as the rest of the company was still to arrive from Singapore. Just fifty-six men to attack three hundred and fifty rebels who had had ample time to prepare defensive positions. These odds went against conventional military wisdom, which dictated that an attacking force should have overwhelming numbers.
The jungle was dense with only three ways to travel. Outside Kuching town there was just one dirt road that led to Simanggang, about one hundred and fifty miles to the east. The rest were narrow foot tracks, which were the most common way to travel close to the long houses of the Dyaks. There was nothing suitable for vehicular traffic. The main method of travel for longer journeys was by river. The third was by air and, unless there were airstrips, that meant by helicopter. At that time there were no helicopters available, so for Four Two the choice was Hobson's.
At midnight on 11 December the depleted Lima company boarded two commandeered ramped powered lighters and sailed up river for Limbang. They experienced heavy fire from the rebels as their assault went in at dawn on 12 December, but they overcame the rebels and released all hostages unharmed. Although successful, the marines had lost five men killed and six wounded. They spent the rest of the day, and the next, clearing the town of rebels. As a result of that action Lima company of Four two Commando was renamed, Limbang Company.
The Indonesian government backed the rebels and called the ensuing conflict Konfrontasi. During this period I had several Konfrontasi of my own with officers of the British Army.
There are a few people in all organisations who consider themselves superior and treat those lower in the hierarchy with contempt, but this attitude seems to be more widespread in the armed forces, or it did during my service. Maybe this is a result of the rigid rank structure found in the forces. Often these people were young and inexperienced, perhaps unsure of their authority, but that is no excuse for such behaviour. I have found over the years that approaching people with respect and civility is more productive. From time to time I encountered people with this attitude in the Navy and Army. Maybe my Royal Marine training influenced my response, but I wasn't prepared to be bullied by these individuals. Twelve months of being told, "Royal Marines take shit from no one," does tend to colour one's attitude.
A few of the following stories recount some of my encounters with individuals who had this attitude.
At that time every Land Rover and Bedford RL was fitted with one of just two Lucas dynamos. One was numbered 22258, the other 22259. The internals were identical in both. The only difference was the yoke, that's the body of the unit. One of them was fitted with a brush band, a strip of thin steel that could be moved aside to give access to the brushes, which are internal. The other had just a pair of holes about a half-inch in diameter. I can't remember which dynamo went with which vehicle. But I do remember that the stores never had one of them in stock and it was a wait of months before a replacement would arrive.
It was unacceptable to have a vehicle waiting for spares for months, so I used the dynamo I could get for both vehicles. No one else had any idea what I'd done.
Sometimes the Army's rules and regulation can work in your favour.
A few weeks after meeting the tiger the Royal Army Service Corps began an audit of our stores stock. One morning the sergeant in charge of the stores rushed into my workshop. 'The auditor wants to reduce our holding of dynamos,' he said. 'He wants to see you.'
The officer, a captain, said, 'You haven't used many of these dynamos over the last six months. I'll have to reduce your holding from three to one. How's that going to affect you.' He was checking the ledger and talking about the model I couldn't get.
After thinking about it for a moment I said, 'I don't think it'll make any difference from how we're operating now.' I didn't mention the supply difficulties.
'Good,' he said. 'We'll do that.'
The sergeant storeman was apoplectic, but the officer overruled his objections.
A short while later the captain sent for me again.
'You've used a lot of this model,' he said. This time he was talking about the dynamo we could get.
'We have problems with that model, Sir,' I said.
'That's far more than your stocks are set up for. I'll have to increase your holding from three to six.' He turned to the sergeant, 'Will you have room on your shelves for the extra units?'
The sergeant wasn't the brightest and usually stuck rigidly to the rules and regulations, so before he could reply I said, 'He'll have to have room, Sir. You're reducing the stocks of the other dynamo so he can use that space.'
'Good thinking, Corporal. That's what we'll do,' he said.
After the officer had finished the audit and left, the sergeant storeman came round to my workshop. 'Are you sure the stocks of dynamos will be all right?'
'Mate, the damn things are identical apart from the fact we can get one, but not the other. I thought it best not to confuse him with the minor difference on the yoke. Now we've got more the model we can get, so we're quids in. Don't worry about it.'
The Victualing Officers.
The revolution was dead, but it had left a legacy. At that time planning was underway for the establishment of Malaysia, which would be an amalgamation of the Federation of Malaya, Singapore and the three states that made up North Borneo, Sarawak, British North Borneo (later Sabah) and Brunei. Brunei never became a member and Singapore withdrew from membership shortly after the nation was formed.
Indonesia, then ruled by President Sukarno, was opposed to the establishment of Malaysia, and had plans of its own to unite the whole of the Island of Borneo, which the Indonesians called Kalimantan. They had supported the Brunei insurrection and on 20 January 1963 Konfrontasi was born when Indonesia declared publically its opposition to the formation of Malaysia. Initially the actions in the Konfrontasi were limited to incursions by groups of volunteers backed by Indonesia, the first occurring on 12 April 1963 when the police station at Tebedu, in Sarawak, was attacked.
Konfrontasi was never called a war, but it developed into a large scale conflict as time passed, and intensified after Malaysia was officially established on 16 September 1963. By the end of 1964, incursions by squads of 500 or 600 Indonesian troops were common. The confrontation ended years later when the peace treaty was signed on 11 August 1966.
In May 1963 , a sergeant and I formed the advanced party to prepare for our workshop's return to Kuching. This time it was to be the complete unit, about thirty Royal Marine Commando tradesmen. We were to have five REME (Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers) tradesmen attached to us as our workload was much greater than we were set up to handle. We would be looking after the army and RAF vehicles as well as our own and sometimes we became involved in minor work on helicopters. We also had several small Royal Naval boats
I can't remember the exact date the sergeant and I arrived, but it was a Sunday, sometime in May. On the Tuesday the rest of the workshops joined us.
We'd set up the workshops in a water department facility, and at mealtimes we had a long drive across Kuching town to the army dining hall, which we called the mess. The food was the worst I'd experienced since joining the Royal Corps.
A little background. In the Royal Navy and Royal Marines, the victualing officer has a daily monetary allowance from which he purchases the food. This is a carry over from the time of sail. Because a ship is mobile, and in the time of sailing vessels the arrival at any particular port was impossible to predict, this autonomy with food procurement worked so well that it was allowed to continue and extended to the Royal Marine Commando units. Army units in contrast are relative static organisations, so the army issued food to their troops, the chefs of which had to do the best they could with what they were given. During the Konfrontasi the Army units had been placed on the same victualing system as the Royal Marines and were using the naval method with a daily allowance of three Singapore dollars and fifty cents, per man per day. It simplified the logistics, but would have been a new experience for the victualing officer in the Catering Corps.
The food at lunch on that first Thursday was only fit to be thrown into the garbage. When we returned from the mess I was furious. I stormed into the workshop's office where Wally Buxton, the Workshop's RSM, was working at his desk.
That bloody food's atrocious, Wally. I wouldn't eat it if I was starving. It'll poison any pigs it's fed to. I want something done about it.'
Wally put down his pen and turned to me. 'I've just heard there's a messing meeting at 1400 hours. Would you like to go along as the workshop's rep?'
'Gee, Wally. I'd give you a kiss if you weren't so bloody ugly.'
He laughed. 'You'll need to get your skates on, You've only half an hour. Shall I tell them you'll be a little late?'
'Please. It'll take a little while to get a list together.'
Fifteen minutes later I had a list of forty-five complaints, all legitimate in my opinion. Forty-five complaints from less than twenty men in a matter of minutes. A few were trivial, but most addressed serious problems. The REME blokes had contributed nothing to the list of complaints and were convinced that I was wasting my time.
The victualing officer had delayed the start of the meeting until I arrived. When I joined them there were eight or nine men seated around the table, all army blokes. The victualing officer, an army captain in the Catering Corps, and the cook, a Catering Corps corporal, were at the head of the table, the rest were the reps from other units. The captain welcomed me.
'We'll leave the Royal Marines until the end so their representative can see the routine. Do you have any problems with that, Corporal?' He spoke as if he was ordering a dog to heel and it got up my nose.
'That's fine by me. First or last makes no difference.' I was buggered if I was going to call the arrogant sod, sir.
We started. The officer asked each rep in turn if they had any complaints. Each rep said in turn that they had nothing to report. The officer made a note of the man's unit and that he was satisfied with the standard of catering. I couldn't believe no one complained about the awful food. Then I remembered the REME men seconded to our workshops and their comments.
The officer turned to me. 'So you see how it works, Corporal. I don't suppose you have any complaints.
'I have a few…'
He cut me short, his eyes narrowing and glaring at me, his face reddening. 'What do you mean by a few?'
'Forty-five in total. There would have been more if we'd had more warning of the meeting, but I was unable to find some of the men.'
He was silent for a few moments, then he said, 'Let's hear them.' I could see he was struggling to keep control of his temper.
This is not going to be fun, I thought. 'For starters we have a general complaint; the food falls way short of the standard acceptable for Royal Marines. Now to the details.'
The corporal cook's mouth had dropped open, and he was staring at me, his face registering alarm.
'Number one: To begin, let's get rid of all these condiments and serve up food that's edible.' We had more kinds of sauce, pickles and spices than I knew existed. 'When you've only a paltry three dollars fifty cents per man per day to work with, concentrate on the basics. Good food doesn't need anything to disguise the flavour. A competent chef would be ashamed to serve up the garbage that's been dished out since we arrived.'
The corporal cook sat rock still, his mouth still wide open. The officer was also speechless for a moment, then he said, 'You've only been here for two days.'
'It's less than two days for the unit, but it's five for me. That's long enough to see that the catering arrangements are appalling.'
Before he'd time to gather his thoughts I pressed on.
'Number two: The corporal cook is a disgrace. His clothes are filthy, thick with grease. He's filthy and the men working under him are as bad. It's a wonder no one's gone down with dysentery. Their turnout is unacceptable. They need to lift their approach to hygiene.'
'That's nothing to do with this meeting. I'll decide about a man's dress.' The captain was recovering his arrogance.
'Number three: …'
And so we went on. All forty-five complaints were dismissed as frivolous.
'You leaved me no option,' I said when he rejected the last. 'I'll present these complaints to my CO.'
'This is nothing to do with your CO,' the officer said. His voice was not arrogant anymore.
I ignored him and walked out. Back in the workshop's office I was so angry that my lunchtime fury seemed like a calm in the doldrums. As I was reporting to Wally the workshops officer came out from his office.
'What's wrong, Jim?'
First name terms were common in the Royal Marines when in informal situations and this officer and I got on well. We had things in common. He had been supported through university by the army. Later, when he'd discovered that the army was not for him, he'd applied for his discharge, but his request had been refused. The War Office wanted a return on its investment. After his request to leave the army had been refused, he'd been posted to 3 Commando Brigade, Royal Marines. It was intended as a punishment, but the attitude of the commandos was totally different to anything he'd experienced in army workshops. He was so impressed with the esprit de corps that I understand he applied to serve another term with 3 Commando Brigade.
I explained what had happened and ended, 'I want to see the CO. I think he should be aware of the situation,' I said.
'You have a valid point. You'd better come with me,' he said. 'I'm on my way to see the CO. You can talk to him when we're finished.'
I explained to the CO who said, 'Let me see your list.' As he read down the complaints he frowned, then said, 'This sounds more involved than poor cooking. I'm meeting Brigadier Barton at 1700. I think this is something he should know about. I'll get this typed up.'
Brigadier Barton was the Royal Marine general in command of 3 Commando Brigade.
The victualing officer was on his way back to Singapore the next morning, Friday. I was told he was to face a court martial for fiddling the books.
On Saturday a replacement victualing officer arrived, another captain in the Catering Corps. As a new boy, he was made duty office on the Saturday night and through to the following day. Part of the responsibilities of a duty officer was to attend each meal period so that he was on hand to investigate any complaints.
On Sunday morning just five of us from the workshops went to breakfast. We took our food up to the dining hall and discovered the place was a shambles.
The dining hall was also used as the NAAFI canteen and the army composite platoon had been replaced by a Royal Marine transport section. (The NAAFI is a civilian organisation that provides the recreational, light refreshments and shopping facilities for the British services. — The Navy, Army and Air Force Institute). The army composite platoon was returning to Singapore on Sunday and the men had held a piss up on the Saturday night before they left. The dining tables were strewn with overflowing ashtrays, spilt beer and discarded cardboard food containers. Plates and beer bottles lay everywhere. No attempt had been made to clean up, the floor was filthy and the place stank of rancid food and stale beer. One glance was enough. I was straight round to the guardroom.
'Where's the duty officer?' I demanded.
'He's not arrived yet,' the guard commander said. He was a sergeant in the Royal Army Service Corps.
'Part of his duty is to attend the dining hall at meal times. He should be here. Send your driver to fetch him,' I said.
As a corporal the sergeant outranked me, but he didn't question my authority and sent his driver to pick up the duty office. I returned to the mess. It was on the first floor of the Kuching Horse Racing Club, and approached by a twin flight of external stairs. I was just in time to intercept two locals armed with brushes, buckets and mops who were climbing the stairs.
'Where are you going?' I asked.
'Corporal chef say clean up,' one of them said.
'No you don't, mate. You can wait until the officer's seen the condition of the dining room.'
But the officer didn't arrive.
I stationed the four marines who'd come with me at the stairs with instructions to prevent anyone entering the mess, and went back to the guardroom.
'Where's the duty officer?'
'He won't come,' the guard commander said. 'He says it's not necessary.'
'Does he now? That's not the way it works. He has to be here, and for the full duration of the meal,' I said. 'Send your driver back with this message. This is who I am.' I wrote my name, rank and number on a page I tore from my notebook and gave it to the sergeant. 'Tell him that if he doesn't attend within the next ten minutes I'll be seeing my CO. Do you understand?'
The sergeant nodded and handed the note to his driver, who set off. I turned to the guard commander. 'You find yourself in the rattle too if he doesn't turn up.' I doubt he would have been, but he didn't argue.
I went back to the mess. Now there were several cleaners trying to get to the top of the stairs, but failing. About five minutes later the duty officer arrived.
'Where's Corporal Ditchfield.' He didn't sound happy.
'That's me,' I said, ignoring the honorific.
'Who do you think you are to give me orders? I'm placing you on a charge.'
'Your privilege, but before you do anything, take a look at the mess where we're expected to eat,' I said and pointed up the stairs.
'You don't speak to an officer like…'
'STOP. Come and take a look at this,' I repeated.
He was so shocked at the authority in my voice that he stood still. I took him by the arm and led him to the top of the stairs. He was still angry, but I could see he was beginning to realise I must have a reason for my actions. We entered the mess and he stopped. His eye widened and his attitude changed completely.
'Thank you. You did the right thing. Please accept my apologies.'
We had a new corporal chef on Tuesday .
The new chef was a total opposite to the old, a specialist pastry cook. He was clean, and within a couple of days, so were all the cooks under him. He and I rubbed along well.
One of the first changes the new victualing officer made was to increase the frequency of the messing meetings to one every week. Understandably the new chef was wary of me at first, but he listened to what I had to say. One of my first suggestions was to keep the milk and sugar separate from the urn of tea and allow the men to help themselves. The normal method the army cooks used was to put the milk and sugar in the urn of tea each time a fresh urn was brewed. The urn held about ten gallons, forty-five litres, with proportional quantities of milk and sugar. Although he thought it would be more expensive the chef agreed to try it out. Some men preferred their tea without sugar, other didn't like milk, so everyone was happy. At the next meeting he reported that we had reduced sugar consumption by ten pounds a day, and milk by a couple of gallons. This was simply because if a fresh urn of tea had to be made towards the end of a meal period, the sugar and milk, that had previously been added to it, were no longer wasted.
Over then next few months I made several suggestions. One was that instead of frying a couple of dozen eggs at once, with the associated sausages and bacon, then leaving them to spoil on warming dishes in a bain-marie, that a cook would wait and as a man took his cereal he would select what he'd like cooked from a menu. Breakfast lasted for about ninety minutes and men drifted through the door in dribs and drabs, so it was not difficult for one cook to cope with these orders. Like the tea, the only food cooked was that which was eaten. What's more it was fresh and tasted good. Again we saved money.
I still wasn't satisfied. In the Royal Marines we were provided with four meals a day, but under army practice we were only getting three. I pointed this out and asked that a cup of tea and some bread and jam be provided when we knocked off work each day. At first the chef was reluctant, but soon he was cooking cakes, pastries and snacks such as Welsh Rarebit, beans on toast and such snacks. At a messing meeting shortly after this was initiated, he said to me, 'You're a bloody crafty bastard. But it's not costing much and the men appreciate it. Their opinion of my cooks has improved and as a result of the comments we're getting the cooks are now enjoying their work. More to the point, I'm keeping my pastry skills up. That's important to me.'
Occasionally we'd be called out on a recovery job. One recovery was more difficult than expected and we didn't arrive back in camp until about 0200 hours. All we'd had to eat all day was a sandwich at midday and we were hungry. There were four of us in the recovery crew and as the Guard Commander let us through the gate into the accommodation camp he said, 'The corporal chef told me to wake him when you got back and I've just sent a man to do so. He'll have a meal ready for you in about a half hour.'
He didn't have to do that, but we appreciated it and made sure he knew of our appreciation.
© Jim Ditchfield 2016