Gurkhas in Borneo

The Gurkhas in Borneo

Indonesia’s first president, Sukarno, had earned power the hard way after defeating Dutch efforts to re-impose colonial rule following the Second World War. By the early 1960s, he was a strong proponent of ‘Maphilindo’, a regional, supra-national concept that had roots stretching back to the late 19th Century. However, Sukarno’s variant was to be an economic and political union comprising Indonesia, Malaya, Singapore, British-protected Borneo (Sarawak and Sabah), the oil-rich sultanate of Brunei, and the Philippines. Indonesia would be Maphilindo’s largest constituent both in terms of land mass and population and, because of this, would automatically become the dominant partner.

However, there were some glaringly-obvious snags: apart from British-protected Borneo, the nations earmarked to form Maphilindo were sovereign and independent in their own right. Malaya had just emerged victorious from the struggle of a violent communist insurgency, labelled the Emergency, which had lasted from 1948 to 1960. Its journey to democratic independence was hard won and would not be given up lightly. The British had done much to safeguard Malaya’s post-colonial independence and were unlikely to idly watch Indonesia gobble up an important ally.

Britain, Malaya and other Commonwealth allies agreed to the formation of Malaysia largely in response to the perceived threat of Maphilindo. It would comprise Malaya, Singapore, British-protected Borneo and possibly Brunei. Thus Malaysia would be large enough and powerful enough to protect its sovereignty and help maintain the balance of regional power. Malaysia was scheduled to come into existence on 31 August 1963, but was delayed in doing so until 16 September 1963. In the event, Brunei retained its quasi-independent status as a British protectorate, while Singapore would be ejected from Malaysia in 1965 because of growing ethnic, economic and political tensions.

Sukarno and his ministers were quick to respond, although there was much debate about whether to use military force or to weaken Malaysia's ability to function as a workable state through other means. A middle way was eventually chosen, one that would use a mixture of destabilisation alongside military intervention, albeit at a level that avoided international censure. The opening shot came with Sukarno’s backing of a communist uprising in Brunei on 8 December 1962, but the British rushed army units into the sultanate and quickly helped restore order. Sukarno then switched his focus and backed Indonesian army-sponsored guerrilla incursions from the Indonesian Borneo into the British-protected part of the island.


The Konfrontasi, or Confrontation, started on 20 January 1963. Larger raids were initiated several months later once additional men and materiel were in place and more local guerrillas had been recruited. On 16 August, the British Army engaged what a spokesman labelled ‘a group of about fifty Indonesian-backed terrorists’. But Britain wanted to avoid escalation for several reasons, including worries about cost as the nation sought to divest its expensive Asian commitments in the post-war and increasingly post-imperial world. Thus the response was initially defensive, with efforts to intercept and destroy intruders only after they had entered British-protected territory.

Despite this self-imposed constraint, Britain had an important advantage: its army was extremely proficient at jungle warfare having emerged victorious from the Burma campaigns of the Second World War and the Malay Emergency. General Walter Walker, an ex-Chindit and the founder of the British and Commonwealth jungle warfare school, also headed Britain’s forces in the region. But Walker still faced a daunting challenge: he had to defend a porous 900-mile border covered with some of the world's most impenetrable jungle against an experienced and much larger enemy. It was estimated that roughly 20,000 Indonesian troops were based along the border at the beginning of the Confrontation, while Walker started with just a single brigade of infantry composed of three battalions and 15 helicopters in support.

British and Commonwealth forces grew as the Confrontation heightened, with numbers peaking at around 18,000 when Walker passed on his command in March 1965. However, Indonesian forces also expanded in scope and scale. Caught in the middle, the local population of British-protected Borneo were initially wary of both sides, but with a slight leaning towards Indonesia because of ethnic and cultural ties. Unfortunately for Indonesia, her armed forces frequently intimidated the indigenous people and, in some cases, acts of a more extreme nature were recorded. An early example, occurred in September 1963 at the village of Long Jawai.


Big blunder

Located around 30 miles from the border in Sarawak’s third division, Long Jawai contained a British forward post manned by four Gurkhas – two NCOs and two Riflemen of the 1st/2nd King Edward VII's Own (KEO) Gurkha Rifles – and two men from the local Police Field Force (PFF). Supporting them were 21 border scouts, militiamen recruited by the British from the local population. The post’s headquarters (HQ) and signal centre was built inside a school hut, which was far from ideal. However, the local people had been unwilling to help the Gurkhas expand their main defensive position located on a hill east of the village.


Captain John Burlinson arrived at Long Jawai with Corporal Tejbahadur Gurung and two riflemen carrying a light machine gun (LMG) on 25 September. Tejbahadur and the two soldiers were told to relieve the two NCOs as Burlinson went to speak with the locals, convincing them to assist in building the hill’s defences and to help the Gurkhas relocate the HQ and signal centre there. Unfortunately, there were problems with the radio antennae and so the sets had to remain in the village, with three men assigned to them. New and more effective masts were requested, while the rest of the small force manning the outpost now concentrated itself on the hill. Burlinson and a replaced NCO left on 27 September.


Unknown to the Gurkhas, they were not the only visitors to Long Jawai; an Indonesian reconnaissance force had been hiding in one of the village longhouses and was now reinforced by a full-scale raiding party.* A border scout left for the village to visit his sick wife early on 28 September and, on the way, spotted some of the enemy. Unseen, he raced back to the hill and informed Tejbahadur. Unaware of the enemy's size, Tejbahadur rushed down to the three signallers and told them to call for support from regional HQ, located 70 miles away at Belanga. He then grabbed a case of grenades and returned to the hill, arriving there just as the position came under automatic and 60mm mortar fire. The signallers in the village were desperately trying but failing to make contact with regional HQ as the region was notoriously difficult for effective communications. Aware of the operators’ position, the Indonesians soon raked the school hut with gunfire, killing one Gurkha and one PFF operator instantly. The surviving PFF trooper managed to escape and stagger away despite being wounded.

*Which probably explains why the villagers were so reticent to help the Gukhas.


On the hill, the Gurkhas had started to return fire and put up a spirited defence. However, the border scouts with them started to lose heart and began slipping away down the reverse slope and over to a nearby stream. They were captured here by a group of Indonesians and frog-marched away. Lagging slightly behind, one scout saw his comrades being taken prisoner and decided to return to the Gurkhas. With just four men to call on, Tejbahadur was facing overwhelming odds, plus he had already lost one man killed from mortar fire and had another wounded in the leg by a bullet. The fighting lasted several hours, with the enemy getting bolder as the Gurkhas started running low on ammunition. Tejbahadur prudently had his men break off and retreat into the jungle.


After covering as much distance as possible, they left the wounded man hiding with whatever medical supplies they had. The group then retreated from the area, hoping to reach the nearest scout post at Long Linau. With meagre rations, and over difficult terrain, they arrived a few days later to discover a border scout had evaded the Indonesians and made it there before them, sucessfully raising the alarm. Despite being tired and weary, the Gurkhas continued to headquarters at Belaga and gave a full report on the attack. Tejbahadur was eventually awarded the Military Medal for his determination and level-headed leadership. In the meantime, the Indonesians had plundered Long Jawai before continuing with their mission. On setting up a new camp, they took their captive border scouts to the side and murdered ten of them.

Vengeance was not far off. Gurkha units had been dropped-in by helicopter and were already starting to hunt the raiders down. One Gurkha unit arrived in Long Jawai to find it ransacked and deserted, while they also found the wounded soldier left by Tejbahadur and sent him back to receive medical attention. Two more Gurkha platoons arrived in the area to reinforce operations by 1 October and results started to be obtained, including the successful ambush of a 26-man unit from the Indonesian raiding party. It was around this time that a border scout, Bit Epa, came forward and directed the Gurkhas to the campsite where his comrades had been murdered. Five Indonesian graves were also discovered, stark evidence that Tejbahadur and his men had paid the enemy back with interest during their fight.


The Gurkhas carried on searching for the raiders, ambushing stragglers and small units detached from the main incursion party that still eluded them. However, it was eventually admitted the bulk of the enemy had crossed back into the safety of Kalimantan. The mission had been an extremely costly and botched affair for Indonesia; not only had the incursion unit suffered casualties for minimal results, but it had also lost the local population’s trust with the slaughter of the border scouts. Indeed, news of the outrage travelled like wildfire across British-protected Borneo as had the Gurkhas’ swift reaction. From then on the British received invaluable intelligence given willingly by locals regarding any Indonesian movements they spotted along or over the border.


Uncorking Claret

Incursions by Indonesian forces continued apace elsewhere in Borneo, although the raids were not producing the results Sukarno had wished for. By 1964, he had decided to raise the stakes and gave clearance for regular Indonesian units to be used in a more overt fashion. Politically, Sukarno was also leaning on the Indonesian Communist Party to support in his vision of Maphilindo. Through their influence – or perhaps coming to his own conclusions – Sukarno believed an Indonesian attack on the Malay Peninsula would also revive the defeated communist movement there. He believed a new Emergency would force his enemies to the negotiating table.


Unfortunately for Sukarno, the area was brimming with Commonwealth and Malaysian forces, while the communist units meant to instigate an uprising mostly existed on paper. Indonesian incursions, which could only be small due to the lack of air and naval superiority, were easily crushed. In addition, the action bolstered the resolve of Britain, Malaysia, Australia and New Zealand to thwart Sukarno, with the latter two nations now sending men and materiel to help. General Walker was also given permission to push forward with plans for counter incursions – covert missions that would strike targets 5,000 yards within enemy territory. The umbrella title for these missions was ‘Operation Claret’ and only units well-versed in jungle warfare would be used. Given their experience, a greater share of the initial burden fell upon the Gurkhas.


Claret missions primarily targeted zones in and around Indonesian bases and their supply routes. The Gurkhas and other British units were striking much deeper into enemy territory by the height of the Confrontation in 1965, sometimes up to 20,000 yards. One sizeable Claret mission at this time was ‘Operation Kingdom Come’. In early August 1965, Colonel ‘Nick’ Neill, commander of 2nd Battalion of the 2nd KEO Gurkhas, had formulated a plan that was outlined to a small audience at battalion HQ. Across the border, the Indonesians were using the River Sentimo to ferry men and supplies to a fairly sizeable base at the village of Babang Baba and Neill was determined their efforts should be disrupted. Three 2nd Gurkha companies and one SAS squadron were ordered to infiltrate enemy territory and make a series of river ambushes along a ten-mile front within five to seven miles of enemy territory.

C Company led by 24-year-old Captain Christopher Bullock was dropped close to the border by helicopter and crossed into Indonesian territory on 14 August. Also deployed was a supporting 105mm howitzer, a radio re-broadcast station and several mortars that remained on the British side. One of Bullock’s greatest difficulties was the lack of detailed maps, which contained large uncharted segments. Rations were basic, comprising rum, sardines, dry biscuits, rice and a form of dried sprat, known as Ikan Bilis. Sleeping equipment was fairly rudimentary and included a waterproof sheet, light sleeping bag and a mosquito net, which was vital to avoid waking up the next day resembling a pin cushion. The average load, despite trying to keep the weight down, was about 80lb.


The first part of their journey was through secondary jungle, which was tougher going because of the greater amount of foliage and underbrush. The weather was hot and the men were quickly drenched in sweat. They were grateful when it started to rain and eventually reached primary jungle, the canopy of which shaded them. For every hour spent moving through the jungle, the Gurkhas stopped for ten minutes in order to maintain their strength. However, they were constantly on guard for fear of ambush. Encampment was made at roughly 16:00 as any earlier would have wasted valuable marching time. Any later and it would start getting dark and near-impossible for the soldiers to cook rations using smokeless stoves. The firebase was also contacted at this stage and given co-ordinates for support should it be needed. The men would rise early and move off by 04:45.


The company eventually entered a vast swamp, which Bullock vividly remembered wading into. ‘The feeling of going up to the thighs in a slush of brown water and decaying vegetation was always abysmal,’ he recalled. Thankfully, the Gurkhas reached firmer ground on an island and, telling most of the men to rest up, the captain and a team of troops headed forward to make a reconnaissance. They moved through more swamp towards some low hills that were, if Bullock’s map was correct, just east of the target. Although it was getting dark, he wanted to gain a more complete picture and so continued onwards, eventually reaching a river. Following it, the group came across a cleared jungle path.

The men suddenly heard the sound of approaching voices and so dived into the undergrowth. A group of Ibans, local tribesmen, were walking down the path followed by a dog that soon picked up the scent of the hiding Gurkhas and decided to make further investigation. Fortunately, one of the Ibans issued a sharp command and the dog scampered off. When it was safe, Bullock had one of his most agile men climb a tree to try and report back on his findings. The young soldier reported they were about 100 yards south of Babang Baba. In poor light, it took Bullock and his men three hours to return to the main encampment. However, they knew they were in the right place and could proceed with their part of the operation.


Death on the river

The company had moved out of the swamp into the low hills by 11:00. Bullock took an advance party out for further reconnaissance, leaving the others – especially those who had contracted dengue fever – to rest. The Forward Observation Officer (FOO) attached to the unit, John Masters, also used the time to determine his fire plan. The reconnaissance party reached the River Sentimo and found it flooded, with Bullock and his men returning to C Company and organising two patrols to scout ahead for favourable ambush sites along the riverbank. Accompanying one of the patrols, Bullock headed southwards and found an old path next to the river where the floodwater was shallower. He decided it was a fair site for the purposes of an ambush.


The captain took a platoon to lay in ambush the next day, while ordering another platoon to head up a hill overlooking the area to offer support. John Masters accompanied this group to direct covering artillery fire should it be requested. The remainder of C Company stayed at the main encampment to act as a reserve. A general-purpose machine gun (GPMG) was placed on the far right of the ambush site, while an LMG was set up on the left. The hours ticked slowly by, with no river traffic witnessed apart from two local Ibans paddling past. The only living thing to pass the Gurkhas on the next day was a monstrous-looking python that decided to swim on, much to everyone's relief.

Indonesian troops finally appeared at midday on the fourth day of laying the ambush; a small motorboat hove into view, carrying four regular soldiers. The signal to fire was given as they neared and the GPMG burst into life, instantly followed by fire from the rest of the ambush party. ‘The occupants were killed instantly and the boat overturned, a khaki cap drifted mournfully past me, separated forever from its owner,’ Bullock wrote. Indonesian forces in the area were not slow to react; a second longboat, carrying a platoon’s-worth of soldiers landed on the riverbank and its occupants scrambled out, trying to flank the ambush party. Incoming fire was also taken from Babang Baba.

It was abundantly clear to Bullock that he needed to retreat, while the first ‘crump’ of a British 105mm shell could be heard landing in or near Babang Baba as Masters called in artillery support. Getting back to the hill, Bullock rapidly checked all were present and correct and, along with the reserves and the FOO, struck out to reach C Company’s main encampment site. As a parting shot, Masters radioed the hill’s co-ordinates for the 105mm howitzer to shell just after their departure. This done, Bullock, the ambush party and the reserves reached the rest of C Company and, within minutes, all of the Gurkhas were heading for the border.


Their withdrawal went smoothly and Bullock and his men were congratulated for their success back at headquarters. They were also informed another Claret mission was to start within a matter of days and that C Company had been earmarked to take part. It was not exactly the kind of news exhausted men wanted to hear. Despite this, it was time to celebrate Gurkha style and Bullock remembers drinking a number of ‘Rusty Nails’, shots of whiskey and liberal lashings of Drambuie, followed by traditional Nepalese songs. ‘A succession of young soldiers stood up and sang and danced their tribal lays from the high Himalayan villages of Nepal,’ he recalled.

The Battle of Bau

One of the toughest battles fought by the Gurkhas in the Borneo campaign came in November 1965. The 2nd/10th Princess Mary’s Own Gurkhas had become aware of an Indonesian effort to construct a base in the Bau area and, on 21 November, its C Company – backed up by 2nd/10th’s Reconnaissance and Assault Pioneer platoons – was sent out to neutralise this enemy presence. Commanded by Captain Kit Maunsell, the Gurkhas found themselves moving through some particularly tough jungle terrain and the Indonesian position, when located, proved defensively sound. Built on the top of a hill, it was approachable only by three ridgelines. Enemy strength was estimated to be one platoon at the top of the hill and a company roughly 500 yards west of the summit. Maunsell had his men make a reconnaissance of the area before moving to attack.


On the southern ridgeline, and 800 yards away from the Indonesian base, Maunsell set up a support area manned by assault pioneers and a FOO. The main force cut through the foliage as quietly as possible, creeping slowly towards the target. They eventually reached a point about 60 yards from an enemy post where they encountered a barrier of trees. The captain ordered his men to dismantle this obstacle as silently as possible. Unfortunately, an Indonesian soldier suddenly appeared and, having seen his enemy, prepared to fire. The Gurkhas' response was swifter and he was promptly shot down.


The element of surprise had been lost and the Indonesians alerted. Time was now of the essence and Gurkha platoons raced left and right. Lieutenant (Queen’s Gurkha Officer) Ranjit Rai headed one of the attacks; having suppressed an enemy machine gun, his platoon came across an enemy hut that was promptly cleared. Indonesian fire was thickening, so Maunsell ordered 8 Platoon to neutralise the threat, with one Gurkha killed and another wounded in the process. However, the attack worked and had pushed the Indonesians back.


On the far left, 9 Platoon was held up by an enemy machine gun. This was overcome when Lance Corporal Rambahadur Limbu, supported by his two-man LMG team, charged forward and despatched the enemy with a well-placed grenade. Moving on, the three Gurkhas jumped over a trench, with one of them throwing in a grenade as they passed. However, an Indonesian soldier manning the position fired his weapon and managed to wound the two passing LMG teammates before the grenade’s explosion killed him. Rambahadur returned to help his fallen comrades, carrying the first wounded man to the cleared hut and then went back for the second man, also taking him to the hut. All the while, he was being blasted at by the Indonesians. Despite the grave danger, Rambahadur then risked his life for a third time, racing out and returning with the discarded LMG.

The Gurkhas eventually destroyed the Indonesian units on the hilltop, although pressure from nearby enemy units was increasing fast. The fighting on the hilltop had lasted about an hour-and-a-half by the time Maunsell ordered his men to retire. Sadly, the two wounded men rescued by Rambahadur Limbu had died, taking Gurkha casualties to three dead and one seriously wounded. The Indonesians lost 24 men. Ranjit Rai and Maunsell both received the Military Cross, while Rambahadur Limbu was awarded Britain’s highest award for bravery in the face of the enemy, the Victoria Cross (VC).


The situation in Borneo had utterly changed by the time Rambahadur Limbu given his VC in 1966. Despite the pressures of British Claret Operations, and the quagmire that the Confrontation was becoming for the Indonesian army in general, the end for Sukarno’s Borneo campaign and his dream for Maphilindo came from a domestic crisis. Indonesia’s communists had sought greater political influence as the nation's economy stuttered and the expense of fighting the Confrontation grew. In order to maintain his haemorrhaging popularity, Sukarno attempted to woo further communist backing and political support. He was also becoming fearful of the growing discontent of his conservative generals.


On 1 October 1965 an Indonesian-style Night of Long Knives was instigated by a communist group, with several top Indonesian generals captured and murdered, although one – General Nasution – slipped away and quickly organised a counter strike. Against the wrath of army, the communists had little chance of success and their efforts soon quashed. Sukarno vigorously protested his innocence and attempted to disassociate himself from events. He managed to cling on to power, although not for long. Riots erupted in March 1966 as the Indonesian people voiced frustration at the economic depression and, from the perspective of many, the needless cost of the Confrontation. Indonesia's High Command had also had enough and organised a putsch, ousting Sukarno from effective power and replacing him with General Suharto.


For the sake of domestic security, it was imperative for Indonesia to halt the Confrontation; it was using up valuable resources and manpower for little reward. Suharto and the generals came to terms with the British and Malaysians, signing a formal peace on 11 August 1966. The joy of victory for the Gurkhas was tempered with the pain of losing 43 men killed and 87 wounded during the campaign. Another blow came with cuts to the British defence budget, reducing Gurkha manpower. Britain's own economic situation was far from rosy during this era. The men from Nepal had proven themselves to be adept, flexible, tough and tenacious. They had also added the Confrontation to their long list of battle honours and lived up to their motto: ‘It is better to die than live a coward.’