The Context: Borneo, 1962
On the 8th of December 1962, the North Kalimantan National Army (TNKU) rebelled against the rule of the Sultan of Brunei. The Sultan was unsure about the proposed formation of a "Federation of Malaysia", which had British support, and those who opposed the federation were attempting to seize the opportunity to halt the plans. The major opposition to a united Malaysia came from the Republic of Indonesia, or more accurately its president, General Sukarno. It was Sukarno's dream to bring all of Borneo (three-quarters of which is taken up by Kalimantan, part of Indonesia, anyway) into a Greater Indonesia, and the prospect of a Malaysian federation threatened his expansionist schemes. The TNKU, pro-Sukarno dissidents, used the Sultan’s indecisiveness to make trouble, the first time Sukarno used force to attempt to further his cause.
The first attacks by the TNKU were made on the Sultan’s palace, the British Residency (both in Brunei Town), and on towns throughout the sultanate such as Seria, Bangar and Limbang. Although the majority of these early attacks were successfully defeated, the terrorists took hostages at Bangar and Limbang. At Limbang the hostages included the British Resident, Richard Morris, his wife, and all other British people found in the area. The leader of the rebels at Limbang, Salleh bin Sambas, threatened to soon hang the hostages. This threat had to be taken seriously – the government officials captured at Bangar had already been executed.
The Sultan had appealed to the British for military assistance almost immediately, and the response was rapid. The attacks had begun on the morning of Saturday the 8th, but had not secured the airport, so by the afternoon two companies of Gurkhas had been flown in to occupy Brunei Town, and on the Sunday 1st Battalion The Queen's Own Highlanders arrived. This was followed the next day by L (Lima) Company of 42 Commando Royal Marines (L Coy 42 Cdo RM; although about half a Troop short of a full complement) and 1st Battalion The Green Jackets (who only became The Royal Green Jackets in 1966). Immediate attention was given to the Limbang hostages, and the task of rescuing them was given to the company of Marines, who were commanded by a certain Captain Jeremy J. Moore (later to become Major General Moore, commander of the British taskforce during the Falklands campaign 20 years later).
Time Not On Their Side: "Release the Hostages"
The raid to retrieve the hostages was to take place on the Tuesday night, barely more than 24 hours after L Coy had arrived in Borneo from Singapore (L Coy had been chosen as the two other company commanders were either picnicking or water-skiing and so immediately unavailable. Moore, however, was writing Christmas cards at the time). The order given to Moore by his commander was simple: "release the hostages".
There was little information on Limbang available to Moore other than that the town was situated at a bend in the river, and built on an area about a thousand yards long and several hundred wide cut out of the jungle. It was only accessible by river or helicopter, and there was no air support with the necessary range in Borneo at the time. As for enemy dispositions, all Moore had to go on was that there was thought to be around 150 rebels in the town, armed mostly with shotguns (extremely dangerous at close quarters) but also with some automatic weapons. The only map available to him was 10 years old, and as such did not show all of the buildings. All that was known was that most, if not all, of the hostages were held in the police station, one of only two brick buildings in Limbang (the other being the hospital). It was also assumed that the police station held the rebel HQ and this would be the first target of the raid, Moore hoping to knock out the command post before the rebels could get organised. The raid had to be hard and fast, as the enemy could not be granted enough time and opportunity to kill the hostages before the Marines rescued them.
The boats to be used on the raid were two "Z-lighters", flat-bottomed cargo craft that looked remarkably similar to military landing craft that the Marines would be used to. These boats had been commandeered by Lieutenant Commander Black of the Royal Navy, also later to serve in the Falklands War as Captain of the aircraft carrier HMS Invincible.
L Coy sailed towards Limbang on the night of the 11/12 December 1962. Moore, 42 Commando's Intelligence Sergeant, part of Coy HQ, 5 Troop and a reconnaissance group were on the first craft. The main Coy HQ, the remaining Troop and a half and the Vickers machine gun group followed in the second lighter. The raid was planned for first light, and as the lighters rounded the bend in the river the troops could only watch as all the streetlights went out. Initially this was thought to be a sign that they had been spotted, but they had in fact gone out because of the rising sun.
There was no real element of surprise due to the boats' engines, and as the boats came within about 300 yards of the police station the Intelligence Sergeant in the leading boat hailed the rebels in Malay through a loudhailer. He told them to lay down their arms as the rebellion was over: the response came in the form of gunfire from a light machine gun (LMG), several submachine guns (SMGs) and approximately 100 shotguns. The Vickers group in the second lighter immediately returned fire, allowing the first craft to beach 30 seconds later. As the Marines began to disembark and move ashore, sustained fire from the enemy LMG killed two Marines and wounded 5 Troop's commander. The senior Sergeant took over and promptly cleared the police station with two sections. However, the coxswain of the leading craft was wounded, and the lighter began to drift away from the bank with one section of 5 Troop, plus Moore and the HQ, still on board. The naval officer on board managed to drive the boat back towards the bank, and it broached 150 yards upstream. Moore ordered the remaining troops to land under the command of the Troop Sergeant, MacFarlane, who proceeded to clear the hospital and rescue most of the hostages, including the British Resident. In a subsequent firefight, however, MacFarlane and two Marines were killed by shotguns at close range.
Meanwhile, the second craft was still under fire, and the Company second in command (Coy 2i/c) was wounded, and Company Sergeant Major (CSM) Scoins took over. In order to get a better line of fire for the Vickers machine guns, the CSM asked the navy Lieutenant in command of the lighter to "pull out of the line a bit". The Lieutenant obliged, replying "Sar’nt Major, Nelson would have fucking loved you".
Moore then went ashore to meet Morris, the Resident, in the hospital. Morris told Moore that around 300 rebels were in Limbang, and he also knew the locations of the other hostages. The CSM landed the two troops still embarked on the second lighter, and the process of clearing the town house by house began. It was then discovered that the two young troop commanders who had just come ashore had never trained in house clearance – Moore simply talked them through the procedure, and sent them off to try it for real. Another eight hostages were successfully freed by the afternoon, and it took until the next day to completely clear the town of rebels so that it was fully within L Coy’s control.
Aftermath: Jungle Warfare
Not a single hostage was killed by the rebels, who seemed to lose heart after the police station (and their only machine gun emplacement) was taken. 15 were killed and 50 captured, from a force eventually revealed to be 350 strong. In return 5 NCOs and Marines were killed during the raid, with 7 wounded. Moore was awarded a bar to his Military Cross (which he had earned during the Malayan Emergency), and both section commanders (Corporals Lester and Rawlinson) of the first two sections ashore were awarded the Military Medal. The naval personnel manning the lighters were also decorated for their part in the action.
L Coy 42 RM became known as "Limbang Company" from then on, and the anniversary of the raid is celebrated annually by the whole Commando as Limbang Day.
The Limbang Raid was a significant action against the rebels. It showed that Britain would not tolerate the uprising, and took place so swiftly and effectively, in conjunction with actions elsewhere, that the rebellion was crippled. The Queen's Own Highlanders fought at Seria and the Green Jackets at Miri, to crush the uprising, although pockets of resistance held out in the jungles of Borneo until May 1963. This rebellion really signalled the beginning of a bitter and undeclared war between Indonesia (i.e. Sukarno) and Britain, with backing for Britain from other states such as Brunei. The war would last for 4 years, would involve secret cross-border operations and would turn British soldiers and Marines into the world’s best jungle soldiers.
There was an hour-long documentary made about the Limbang raid by American filmmakers in 2002, the first in a series about various forgotten conflicts since 1945. If anyone happened to see this documentary, please let me know. For information on this documentary (how it was made, what was included etc) and pictures of the Raid on Limbang see: www.forgotten-wars.com or the webpage below.
Major General (retd.) Thompson, Julian: "The Royal Marines: From Sea Soldiers to a Special Force" (2000)