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Gurkhas battle in Borneo


Indonesia’s first president Achmed Sukarno had earned power the hard way. He had fought the brutal regime of the Japanese during WWII and then defeated the returning Dutch who were attempting to re-impose their colonial rule. By the early 1960s he was free to pursue his ultimate goal: ‘Malphilindo’, an economic and political bloc comprising Indonesia, Malaya, Singapore, British-protected Borneo (Sarawak and Sabah) and the oil-rich sultanate Brunei, and the Philippines. Indonesia and, by extension of this, Sukarno, would dominate the lot.


However, there was a glaringly-obvious snag: apart from British-protected Borneo, the nations targeted by Sukarno were sovereign and independent in their own right. For example, Malaya had just emerged victorious from the struggle of a violent communist insurgency – labelled the Emergency – that had lasted from 1948 to 1960. Its journey to democratic independence was hard won and would not be given up lightly.


Meanwhile, the British, who had done much to safeguard Malaya’s post-colonial independence, were unlikely to sit idly by and watch a belligerent Indonesia gobble up an ally. The UK, Malaya and other Commonwealth allies in the region, agreed to the formation of a new federal state, Malaysia, which would be large enough and powerful enough to fend off Indonesia’s escalating militarism. The new nation would comprise Malaya, Singapore, British-protected Borneo, and Brunei. It would formally come into existence on September 16, 1963. In the event, both Singapore and Brunei would back out of the new country.



Reach for the gun

Sukarno and his ministers were quick to plot Indonesia’s response to the creation of Malaysia. They decided to either stall its formation indefinitely through the use of military action or, if this proved impossible, slowly weaken it to breaking point once federalisation had occurred. Indonesia would then step in and dominate.


Sukarno fired the opening shot of his campaign by backing a communist uprising in Brunei on December 8, 1962. The British were swift to reply and army units were rushed to the sultanate and quickly restored control. Not to be dissuaded by this failure, Sukarno switched his focus into backing guerrilla incursions (supported by the regular army) from the Indonesian part of Borneo, Kalimantan, into British-protected territory.


A low-level war, the Confrontation, was declared on January 20, 1963. Several months later, when more men and material were in place, and additional local guerrillas had been recruited, the Indonesians started making larger-scale raids. On August 16 that year the British Army engaged what a spokesman labelled ‘a group of about fifty Indonesian-backed terrorists’. The British wanted to avoid heightening the Confrontation and initially their response was defensive, attempting to destroy the enemy only when they infiltrated friendly territory. Despite these self-imposed operational constraints, Britain held a key advantage: with Burma and the Malay Emergency under its belt, its forces had built up years of jungle know-how and among their best troops were the Gurkhas, the martial men recruited from the mountain lands of Nepal.


The British were lucky in leadership too; heading their response was General Walter Walker, an ex-Chindit and the founder of the British and Commonwealth jungle warfare school. But despite his talents, Walker still faced a daunting challenge: a porous 900-mile border, covered with some of most impenetrable jungle in the world, had to be defended against an experienced and much larger enemy.


At the start of the Confrontation there were roughly 20,000 Indonesians based along the border. In December 1962 Walker could only call on a single brigade of infantry composed of three battalions with 15 helicopters in support. He was given more material and reinforced with extra troops as the Confrontation grew in scale and gravity. When Walker passed on his command in March 1965, British and Commonwealth forces stood at roughly 18,000. Although it should be noted that Indonesia also increased its presence in the theatre as the Confrontation escalated.



Opening shots

At first the local population British Borneo remained wary of both sides; it was a case of waiting to see which nation would become dominant. If anything, there was a slight leaning towards Indonesia, which had the benefit 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, and one that perhaps sums up the modus operandi of many Indonesian units, occurred in September 1963 at the village of Long Jawai.


Located around 30 miles from the border in Sarawak’s third division, Long Jawai contained a post manned by four Gurkhas (two NCOs and two Riflemen of the 1st/2nd King Edward VII's Own 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 HQ and signal centre was built inside a school hut – not an ideal place, but the local people had been unwilling to help the Gurkhas set up a defensive position on a hill to the east of the village.


On September 25 Captain John Burlinson arrived at Long Jawai with Corporal Tejbahadur Gurung, who was charged with taking over from one of the NCOs at the post, and two riflemen with a light machine gun (LMG) to bolster the post’s defence. Burlinson convinced the locals it was in their interests to help build defences up on the hill and to assist the Gurkhas relocate the HQ and signal centre there. Unfortunately, there were problems with the radio antennae and so the sets remained in the village with three men assigned to signals until new and more effective masts arrived. The rest of the force was stationed on the hill. Burlinson and the replaced NCO left on September 27.


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. On the early morning of September 28 a border scout left for the village to visit his sick wife and, on the way, spotted some of the enemy. Unseen, he raced back to the hill and informed Tejbahadur. Unaware of the size of the threat, Tejbahadur rushed to the three signallers and told them to call in for support from headquarters, located 70 miles away at Belanga. The Corporal then grabbed a case of grenades and returned to the hill.


The moment he reached the top, Tejbahadur and his men came under automatic and 60mm mortar fire. Down in the village the signallers were desperately trying, but failing, to make contact with headquarters – the region was notoriously difficult for effective communications. Aware of the operators’ position, the Indonesians 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.



Overwhelming odds

Up on the hill, the Gurkhas were returning fire and putting up a spirited defence. But the border scouts with them began to lose heart and started to slip away down the reverse slope and over to a nearby stream. Here they were captured by a group of Indonesians and frog-marched away. Lagging slightly behind, one scout­ saw his comrades taken prisoner and decided to return to the Gurkhas.


With just four men to call on, Tejbahadur was facing overwhelming odds. One Gurkha Rifleman had already been killed by mortar fire, while another was wounded in the leg by a bullet. Having fought for several hours, and with the Gurkhas' ammunition running low, the enemy started getting bolder by the minute. Tejbahadur prudently had his men retreat into the jungle.


After covering as much distance as possible, they left the wounded man in hiding with what medical supplies they had. They then struck out to reach the nearest scout post at Long Linau. On meagre rations and over difficult terrain they arrived a few days later to find that a border scout who had evaded the Indonesians had made it there before them and already raised the alarm. Although tired and weary, Tejbahadur and his men continued on to headquarters at Belaga where they gave a full report of the attack. For his determination and level-headed leadership, Tejbahadur was awarded the Military Medal.


In the meantime, the Indonesians had plundered Long Jawai before continuing on with their mission. On setting up camp they took their captive border scouts to one side and murdered ten of them. Retribution for this crime was not far off: Gurkha units had been dropped in by helicopter and had already begun to hunt the raiders down. One Gurkha unit arrived in Long Jawai to find it ransacked and deserted. They also found the wounded soldier left by Tejbahadur and sent him back to receive medical attention.


By 1 October, two more Gurkha platoons arrived in the area to reinforce operations and results were starting 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, also came forward and directed the Gurkhas to the campsite where his comrades had been murdered. Five Indonesian graves were also discovered: Tejbahadur and his men had paid the enemy back with interest.


The Gurkhas carried on searching for the raiders, ambushing stragglers and small units detached from the main incursion party, which still eluded them. With great regret it was eventually admitted that the bulk of the enemy had reached and crossed back over the border into the safety of Kalimantan. This early incursion had proven extremely costly for Indonesia. They had suffered casualties and, more importantly, they had lost the trust of the local population, particularly with the brutal slaughter of the border scouts. Conversely, the Gurkha’s swift reaction had impressed the villagers. From then on, the British received invaluable intelligence passed on willingly by locals regarding any Indonesian movements along or over the border.



Uncorking Claret

Incursions by the Indonesians continued apace elsewhere in Borneo, although their raids were not producing the results Sukarno 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 now leaning on the Indonesian Communist Party to support in his vision of Malphilindo. Through their influence (or perhaps coming to his own conclusions), Sukarno came to believe that an Indonesian attack on the Malay Penisula would revive the defeated communist movement there. A new Emergency would, he believed, force his enemies to concede at the negotiating table.


Unfortunately for Sukarno, the area was brimming with Commonwealth and Malaysian forces, while the communist units meant to instigate the uprising existed only on paper. Indonesian incursions, which could only be small due to the total lack of air and naval superiority, were easily crushed. Britain, Malaysia, Australia and New Zealand were now more resolved than ever to thwart Sukarno, with the latter two nations now sending men and material to help in the fight. General Walker was also given permission to push forward with his plans for counter incursions – covert missions that would strike targets 5,000 yards within enemy territory. The umbrella title under which these missions went by was ‘Operation Claret’, and only units well-versed in jungle warfare were to be used. Given their experience, a greater share of the initial burden fell upon Gurkhas. But as they have proved time and again in their history, the men from Nepal not only met the challenge, but then exceeded the expectations of higher command.


Claret operations primarily targeted zones in and around Indonesian bases and their supply routes. By 1965 the Gurkhas and other British units were striking deeper into enemy territory by up to 20,000 yards. One sizeable Claret mission of this time was ‘Operation Kingdom Come’. In early August 1965, Colonel ‘Nick’ Neill, commander of 2nd Battalion of the 2nd KEO Gurkhas, had formulated his unit’s part to be played in the operation and outlined his plan to a small audience at Battalion HQ, which included 24-year-old commander of C Company, Captain Christopher Bullock.


Across the border, the Indonesians were using the River Sentimo to ferry men and material to a fairly sizeable base at the village of Babang Baba. Neill was determined the flow of supplies and command of the waterways to Babang Baba should be interrupted. Three 2nd Gurkha companies – including C Company – 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.

Having been moved in close to the border by helicopters, C Company crossed into Indonesian territory on 14 August. Also moved into location by helicopter and in support of C Company was a 105mm howitzer, a radio re-broadcast station and a number of mortars.


One of the greatest difficulties faced by Bullock was the lack of detailed maps, which contained large uncharted segments. Rations were fairly spartan: rum, sardines, dry biscuits, rice and a form of dried sprat, known as ‘Ikan Bilis’. Sleeping equipment was fairly rudimentary, including a waterproof sheet, light sleeping bag, and a mosquito net, which was vital if one wanted to avoid waking up the next day resembling a pin cushion. Average load, despite trying to keep the weight down, was about 80lb.


The first part of their journey was through secondary jungle. The weather was hot and the men quickly became drenched in sweat. When they reached primary jungle it became cooler, the vast canopy shading them. It had also started to rain. For every hour spent moving through the jungle, the Gurkhas stopped for ten minutes in order to maintain strength. However, the men were constantly on guard for fear of ambush. Encampment was made at roughly four o’clock – any earlier would waste valuable marching time, while any later and it would start to become dark and near impossible for the soldiers to cook up their rations (using smokeless stoves). The firebase was contacted at this stage and given co-ordinates for fire support should it be needed. The men would rise early and get back on the move by 04:45.


C Company eventually entered a vast swamp, which Bullock vividly remembered wading in to. ‘The feeling of going up to the thighs in a slush of brown water and decaying vegetation was always abysmal,’ he recalled. Eventually, the Gurkhas reached firmer ground on an island. Telling the bulk 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 the map was correct, just east of the target. Although it was getting dark, Bullock wanted to gain a fuller picture and so continued, eventually reaching a river. Following it, they soon came across a cleared jungle path. At this point the Gurkhas suddenly heard the sound of voices coming closer and so dived into the undergrowth. A group of Ibans – local tribesmen – came down the path followed by their dog, which soon picked up the scent of the Gurkhas and decided to make further investigation. Fortunately one of the Ibans issued a sharp command and the dog scampered off after its master.


When it was safe to do so, the captain had one of his most agile men climb a tree to try and gain a fuller picture of their location. The young soldier reported that 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.



Death on the river

By 11:00 on the next morning, C Company had moved out of the swamp into the low hills. Bullock then took an advance party out for further reconnaissance, leaving the others – especially those who had contracted dengue fever – to rest and for the Forward Observation Officer (FOO) attached to them, John Masters, to determine his fire plan.


The reconnaissance party reached the River Sentimo and found it flooded; Bullock and his men returned to C Company and organised two patrols to scout 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 the site was a fair one and would do for the purposes of an ambush.


On the next day, Bullock took one platoon to lay in ambush, while ordering another platoon to head up a hill over-looking the area to offer support. John Masters went with them to direct covering artillery fire should it be required. The remainder of C Company was stayed at the main encampment as a reserve. At the ambush site a general-purpose machine gun (GPMG) was placed on the far right, while an LMG was set up on the left.

The hours ticked slowly by and, apart from two local Ibans paddling by, there had been no river traffic. On the next day, the only living thing to pass the Gurkhas was a monstrous python. It decided to swim on, much to everyone's relief.


After four days of laying ambush, the enemy finally decided to show. At midday a small motor boat hove into view, carrying four regular Indonesian army men. The signal to fire was given and the GPMG burst into life, instantly followed by the guns of 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 immediately sprung into action, trying flank the ambush party. Incoming fire was also taken from Babang Baba. It was abundantly clear to Bullock that now was the time to retreat. Also at this point, the first ‘crump’ of a British 105mm shell could be heard landing in or near Babang Baba, as Masters called in for 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 leaving ‘gift’ for the following Indonesians, Masters had radioed the hill’s co-ordinates for the 105mm howitzer to shell after they had left.

This done, Bullock, the ambush party and the reserves met up with the rest of C Company and within minutes all were heading back to the border as fast as possible.


Once back at main headquarters, Bullock and his men were congratulated on their success. They were also informed another Claret mission was in the offing within a matter of days and that C Company had been earmarked to take part; not exactly the sort of news dog-tired men wanted to hear. Despite this, it was time to celebrate – Gurkha style. 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,’ the captain recalled.



The Battle of Bau

For the Gurkhas the greatest moment of their campaign was came in November 1965. The 2nd/10th PMO 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 to the west of the summit. Maunsell had his men make a reconnaissance of the area before moving in for the attack.


On the southern ridgeline – and 800 yards away from the Indonesian base – Maunsell set up a support area manned by the Assault Pioneers and the FOO. The main force cut, as quietly as possible, onwards and upwards. They eventually reached a point 60 yards from the enemy post where they encountered a barrier of trees on the path the Gurkhas were taking. The captain ordered his men to dismantle the barrier as silently as possible. At this point an Indonesian soldier suddenly appeared and, having seen the Gurkhas, prepared to fire. Unfortunately for him, the Gurkhas' response was swifter and he was promptly shot down.


With rounds fired, the Gurkhas lost the element of surprise and alerted the enemy to their presence. Time was now of the essence and Gurkha platoons raced to the left and to the right. Lieutenant (Queen’s Gurkha Officer) Ranjit Rai headed one of the attacks. Having suppressed an enemy machine gun, his platoon came across a hut, which they promptly cleared of opposition. Enemy fire was now thickening and so Maunsell ordered 8 Platoon to neutralise the threat. Although one Gurkha was killed and another wounded, the attack worked, with the enemy pushed back.


On the far left, 9 Platoon was held up by an enemy machine gun. Opposition was liquidated 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, one of the men throwing in a grenade as they passed. An Indonesian soldier manning the position fired his weapon and managed to wound the two passing LMG team mates before being killed by the grenade’s explosion.


Seeing his comrades fall, Rambahadur returned to help. He carried the first wounded man to the shelter of 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 by 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. By the time Maunsell had his men retire, the fighting on the hilltop had lasted an hour and a half. The two wounded men rescued by Rambahadur Limbu sadly died, taking Gurkha casualties to three men dead and one man seriously wounded. The Indonesians lost 24 men. Ranjit Rai and Maunsell both received the MC, while Rambahadur Limbu was awarded Britain’s highest award for bravery in the face of the enemy, the Victoria Cross.



All change

By the time Rambahadur Limbu was awarded his VC in 1966, the situation in Borneo had utterly changed. Despite the pressures of British Claret Operations and the quagmire that the Confrontation had become for the Indonesian army, the end for Sukarno’s Borneo campaign and his dream for Malphilindo resulted from a domestic crisis.


Indonesia’s communists had gained 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 increasingly attempted to gain their 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 operation was soon quashed. Sukarno vigorously protested his innocence and attempted to disassociate himself from events. He managed to cling on to power, but not for long. In March 1966, with the economy depressed and with the Confrontation adding to Indonesia's misery, riots started to erupt. Indonesia's High Command responded by organising a putsch, ousting Sukarno from effective power and replacing him with General Suharto.


For the sake of domestic security, it became imperative for the army to halt the Confrontation, which was using up valuable resources and manpower. Suharto and the generals swallowed their pride and came to terms with the British and Malaysians, signing a formal peace on August 11, 1966.


The joy of victory for the Gurkhas was tempered with the pain of losing 43 men killed and 87 wounded during the Confrontation. Another blow came with cuts in the defence budget, reducing Gurkha levels; Britain's own economic woes were beginning to bite during this era. But the men from Nepal had proven themselves to be adept, flexible, tough and tenacious. They had 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.’


Last updated: September 17, 2013















For valour

Lance Corporal Rambahadur Limbu who won his VC for bravery in the face of withering enemy fire during the Battle of Bau.

















































Welcome to Borneo

Gurkhas arrive at a forward airbase in Borneo. These men were tough, well trained and quick to adapt to jungle conditions. Their heritage as some of the world's best fighters remains to this day.
































































On patrol

The massacre of the border scouts by the Indonesian raiders was a critical mistake. Locals were aghast and soon sided with the British where before they were more inclined to support the Indonesians. Here a British patrol is noting information from a villager in Borneo.































































Under pressure

A brief clip of Sukarno being interviewed in 1964; with the economy under pressure and his reliance on the communist party growing, Sukarno's enemies were already starting to circle him.


























































Britain's dominance of the air allowed her to insert troops at various flashpoints using helicopter, a machine that was to prove its worth time and time again during the Borneo campaign. In this photo an Australian SAS team is disembarking from a Westland Whirlwind helicopter in 1966.






















































This Gurkha is part of a signals section. Unsurprisingly, British radio equipment struggled with the extreme terrain in Borneo and often messages had to be relayed back by foot. Meanwhile, information gleaned from villagers was called the 'Jungle Telegraph'. 

























































Packing a punch

Firebase support could prove vital during Claret missions. Bullock had to call in rounds from a 105mm to cover his withdrawal. These men are using a L10A1 L5 pack howitzer, no doubt to equally good effect. (Thanks to Matt R).































































The war within

Young Indonesian communists have been rounded up and await an uncertain future. The attempt by the communists to liquidate Indonesia's generals was a botched affair and the army was swift to take its revenge.