Monday 21 December 2020

When the Sun Came Up Like Thunder from Kalimantan

 by Robin Wrigley

red wine

It was so rewarding to meet up and enjoy a few drinks with the section plus one of Janet’s hearty lamb stews.

     Teddy, Janet’s husband had arranged the whole day for me. First a visit to the village churchyard for Janet and me to pay our respects to our parent’s grave. As we did every twenty-first of December, ever since our mum joined dad there. That it coincided with the night of the attack was eerie, if not downright weird. Memories.


Sarawak, Borneo, December the twentieth 1965. It was my first real leadership test with a shiny new pip on my shoulder. But of course, I wasn’t wearing it there. I cannot really claim that it was under my leadership because without Sergeant McLaughlin I would have been lost, if not literally. Between us, we led the first section of Charlie Platoon that day.

     The first time I really got to know Neal McLaughlin was when we travelled across the Causeway from Singapore over to the jungle training camp in Johore Bahru. I can’t say I wasn’t excited because I was. But I was also nervous never having been in a jungle before.

     It was there we learned various new talents shown by a Malay Sergeant who’s faded and starched jungle-greens made us all look so new and amateurish. Our brand-new jungle-greens along with our pale skins straight from an English climate. We were also introduced to the most feared creature after snakes. Leeches. How detestable they were especially if one got on you undetected at night and grew, bloated on your blood.

     Now to sharpen our goloks, the army issue machete and cut branches to construct what was called bashers, a crude tent constructed with two groundsheets in which we slept in pairs. Mclaughlin took to it as though he had grown up in the woods when in fact, he was from the Gorbals in Glasgow. He and I shared our first basher. How he managed to sleep so soundly astounded me. I woke up with every rustle imagining all sorts of creatures.

     After two whole days at the school we were considered fully trained to survive life in the jungle. A week later we were shipped across the South China Sea and up the Kuching River into Kuching. The sights, smells and sounds of the Orient. It was everything I imagined after reading Conrad.

     But Kuching wasn’t for the likes of us. It was the ‘Ulu’- the jungle and a couple of days later we were taken there. First by truck as far as the road went and then by helicopters into our base overlooking the enemy. President Sukarno’s Indonesian Borneo, Kalimantan. Here we learned many more skills in the art of jungle fighting and survival.

     The camp was a series of five-feet deep trenches connecting sleeping bunks. They ran around the hilltop as though some giant monster worm had burrowed endlessly and then had his home exposed. In the centre was a helicopter pad on which our supplies arrived.

     In the days we spent what spare time we had writing letters home. We exercised or played volleyball on the helipad depending on availability. Every morning I attended various ‘O’ groups with the Officer Commanding for daily briefings and the planning of attacks against our enemy across the border.

     The plan was to walk in four separate sections in individual routes during the day, hopefully undetected and make camp ready for a dawn raid. Operation ‘Sparrow fart’. The trek through the rainforest that day was exhausting and scary. I imagined an enemy behind every tree and clump of bamboo. We marched in absolute silence. The only sounds came from birds and the screeches from overhead monkeys. Every one of them sending my nerves already on edge, to new heights.

     As we made camp just before dusk in the knowledge we were now well and truly in enemy territory. Everyone worked in an unnatural silence. Nerves continued to be the order of the day. I don’t think any of us slept that night, even McLaughlin was restless

     Just as we were collecting ourselves together as the sun started its orbit and shone dimly through the bush the sky burst into light. We, the ambushers were being ambushed. There were several deafening explosions all around us. That was the last I remembered of that day and that mission. Of my short-lived army service.

     I knew nothing of my return journey. Apparently, I was stretchered for half a day until it was safe to prepare a helicopter pad and the RAF did the rest, straight back to Kuching. Do not stop. Return to go. In this case a hospital in East Grinstead in dear old Blighty.


Now, here we are ten years on to that fateful day. Waiting for the doorbell to ring at Teddy and Janet’s farmhouse. When it rings Teddy will see them in because I can’t. Can’t see that is. But I can hug each one of the five or six who managed to make it here today, shepherded by Sergeant Major McLaughlin MC. If only I could see their cheering faces. Ah well, you can’t have it all I suppose. I have learned to make do with touch.

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