On 16 October 1962 I flew out from the UK to Singapore, where I joined the workshops at 3 Commando Brigade Headquarters, Royal Marines. I was an electrician. On the morning of Saturday 8 December I was a member of a hastily assembled response party forming a five man detached workshop in reaction to the insurgency in Brunei that occurred just a few hours earlier. The rebellion was the first action in the unpublicised war that followed. The revolution wasn't called a war. It was named a Konfrontasi by the Indonesians, who were backing the rebels, and that's the name we accepted. As I understand it, if the government had declared it a war, they would have been liable for the costs that resulted from the various actions.
The detached workshop consisted of three vehicle mechanics, a chef, we thought eating was important, and me. We sailed early on the morning of 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 welcomed us enthusiastically when we arrived in Kuching. They were understandably worried following the events in Brunei and couldn't do enough to make our stay 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, so the immediate reaction was to get a force across to the Sultanate. A couple of hours later two companies of Gurkhas flew from RAF bases at Changi and Seletar in Singapore. 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 rebellion was suppressed within a few hours, several small towns were still in rebel hands. Some three hundred and fifty rebels had captured the town of Limbang, 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.
On 11 December Lima company of 42 Commando was tasked with rescuing the hostages and recapturing the town. The company was a little over half strength, a mere fifty-six men, as the rest were still to arrive. With the threat to execute the hostages the following morning, there was no time to wait for the rest of the company, so plans were made to attack the rebels immediately. 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. Typical of land travel was the situation around the capital, Kuching. Outside the 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, nothing suitable for vehicular traffic. The main method of travel was by river. The third way to travel was by air, and unless there were airstrips, that meant by helicopter.
Four-Two had no helicopters.
At midnight on 11 December the depleted Lima company boarded two commandeered lighters and motored up river, heading for Limbang. They experienced heavy fire as their assault went in at dawn on 12 December, but they overcame the rebels and released all hostages unharmed. In rescuing the fourteen hostages, the marines casualties were five men killed and six wounded. Five men lost their lives rescuing people they had never met, but that's a soldier's lot. Four-Two spent the rest of the day, and the next, clearing the town of rebels. As a result of that action Lima company of 42 Commando was renamed, Limbang Company.
Our small detached workshop returned to Singapore in January 1963 and sometime in March our full workshop was on exercise in the jungle of Johor, Malaya. Although the Brunei rebellion had been overcome quickly, the Indonesians had continued to encourage unrest as they opposed the establishment of Malaysia, a proposed union of the federation of eleven Malay States, with Sarawak, North Borneo and Brunei. The Konfrontasi had developed into a protacted armed conflict. We were preparing to move to move to Kuching. Before we left Singapore we were on exercise in the jungle of Johor, Malaya to ensure that everything functioned as it should. We'd camped at Mersing on the east coast.
With no normal work we decided to refresh our map reading skills, a vital expertise for a commando. We spent the following morning revising the theory and after lunch small groups headed out in Land Rovers to various map references, where people had been positioned to represent a broken down vehicle.
There were three of us in my Land Rover, I was driving, and it was getting dark as we headed back to camp. At Mersing, just a couple of degrees north of the equator, night arrives in a rush and twilight is no more than a few minutes. The track was barely wide enough for the vehicle. It must have been some time since a maintenance crew had visited the area as the jungle was growing back. Our headlights illuminated the secondary growth that had reclaimed the shoulders and was threatening to encroach onto the dirt track itself. There was no moon and beyond our lights everything was black.
In the distance a pair of lights appeared out of the regrowth at the right of the track and I slowed as a precaution. The lights winked on and off as they moved slowly across the track then they stopped when they reached the left side. As we got closer I could see it was an animal. Closer still and I could see it was a big cat, black stripes against its brown body, its eyes reflecting our headlights.
'Shit!' one of my mates said. 'It's a bloody tiger. What are we going to do?'
'I think I'll give it right of way,' I said.
I drove on, slowly, and stopped about ten feet from the tiger. I thought it would move away as the Land Rover approached, but I was wrong.
We sat enthralled, watching the tiger watching us.
The tiger was magnificent. Its body stretched across the track, sleek and rippling with muscles. Its tail swished backwards and forwards just like a domestic cat that's irritated. Its stare seemed unblinking in our headlights and for a few minutes there was a stand off.
I didn't feel scared, not even slightly apprehensive. I don't know about my two mates, but I was enjoying the experience. That didn't stop me making what preparations I could to minimise the danger.
The Land Rover had a canvas tilt, with the back wall rolled up. We had Sten-Guns, but no ammunition; we were after all only "Practising" and had no intention to shoot anything. I doubt the lack of ammunition was significant. I suspect that the Sten's nine-millimetre bullets would not have been effective against a charging tiger. I sat with the Land Rover in first gear, four wheel drive selected, ready to release the clutch and hopefully escape if the tiger decided to charge.
Finally, after what seemed half the night, the tiger must have become tired of the noise of the engine and the stink of hot oil and exhaust fumes. They were not things we noticed, but to the tiger they would be alien. Maybe it came to the conclusion that smelling like that we'd make a poor meal, or perhaps it decided we were no threat. The tiger stalked off slowly through the regrowth like an imperious dowager duchess, as if it owned the place, which of course it did. It was, after all a local, and had more right to be there than we had.
As we set off along the track, less sedately than the tiger, we were all silent. I mulled over the encounter, thinking how privileged I'd been to have had the experience to meet a tiger in its natural habitat. Johor used to be home territory for the Sumatran Tiger, but there were few left roaming wild and I wondered how long it would be before there were none. By the end of 2018 there were known to be just four hundred Sumatran Tigers surviving in the wild.
We had been so lucky to meet our tiger, but it could have turned out so differently. I knew I'd remember the encounter until the day I died.
© Jim Ditchfield 2014