Malaya David Wicks and Simon Wilson
A History of 2 Field Troop Royal Australian Engineers 1963–1965
"It is a splendid job most professionally done... "
Brigadier Terrence McMeekin, Commander 28 Commonwealth Brigade
Description of image above to be
inserted in this section, description of
image above to be inserted in this
L/Cpl John Barnett and Spr Bill Whitfield and an unlucky Brit Spr Ian Tibbles Sprs Bob Rawson and Tony Farrell
Spr Arthur Sinclair
L/Cpl Tony Farrell
Sprs Dave Wicks, Ray Logan, Harry Atkinson,
Mick Sutton and George Greenslade
Spr Darryl Hess
Spr Ken Jolley
Spr Doug Canning
Spr Dion Hands
Front cover photo top: Loading a Commer tipper with laterite under the chinaman at the
Free Thai airstrip. Cpl John Bending oversees proceedings while Spr Ian Tibbles advis-
es Spr Alan Morris driving the dozer. Operation Crown, March 1964.
Front cover photo bottom: L to R: Sappers Les McNamara, Darryl Hess, Peter Matthews,
Gary Plumb, Trevor Reece and Bob Rawson. Exercise Raven, July 1964, Asahan
Training Area, Malacca State.
Rear cover photo: Spr Darryl Hess leading the bucket brigade of concrete carriers during
the construction of a stairway from Commonwealth House, the home of the
Commander of 28 Commonwealth Brigade, to the beach 1964.
Sapper Harry Atkinson drilling rocks in a quarry formed from a gold mine at Bau, Sarawak, 1964.
Drawing by Dennis Adams (1914-2001), commissioned by Alan Hodges in 1979 from a photograph
he took in Bau. Dennis Adams was a prolific WW2 war artist. The Australian War Memorial has
over 350 of his drawings, paintings, illustrations and sculptures. Other works include the bronze
Royal Australian Regiment Memorial in Regimental Square, Sydney and the bronze memorial
to the Royal Australian Corps of Signals at Watsonia in Victoria.
David Wicks and Simon Wilson
A History of 2 Field Troop Royal Australian Engineers 1963–1965
Every valley shall be filled in,
every mountain and hill made low.
The crooked roads shall become straight,
the rough ways smooth.
A History of 2 Field Troop RAE 1963 to 1965 PAGE V
Abbreviations and Glossary x
Map of Southeast Asia xii
Chapter 1 The Raising of 2 Field Troop RAE 1
Chapter 2 Malay Peninsula 5
Chapter 3 Thailand and Operation Crown 13
Chapter 4 Terendak Again 31
Chapter 5 Bound for Borneo – Sarawak 47
Chapter 6 Terendak, then Homeward Bound 67
Chapter 7 Views from the Top 73
Chapter 8 Reminiscences 87
Chapter 9 Records of Service Achievement 113
Chapter 10 The Reunions 119
2 Troop Nominal Roll 130
Accompanied Family Details 132
2 Field Troop RAE Roll of Honour 133
In Memoriam 134
Service Medals 135
PAGE VI DESTINATION: MALAYA
This book covers a two-year period in the service of 2 Field
Troop Royal Australian Engineers as a sub-unit of 11 Indep
Field Sqn Royal Engineers. From 1963 to 1965 the Troop
served on the Malay Peninsula, Thailand and Sarawak.
This was an active period of training and operations, which
prepared many of the troop members in a very practical
manner for subsequent service in South Vietnam and other
Not only are details of the practical aspects of military
engineering described, but there are also descriptions of the
social aspects of living in Southeast Asia and anecdotes of
events that have become akin to folk law. Accompanied
families were an important part of life in Malaya and so there
are stories about their experiences in Malacca.
Although this book is primarily directed towards the former
members of the Troop, the professional and social aspects
narrated provide a unique perspective on the life of a soldier
during a period of Indonesian Confrontation and on the
tensions associated with countering the potential spread of
Communism in Southeast Asia.
Cpl John Bending, Sprs Alan Morris, Bill Jones and Tom Abberfield
A History of 2 Field Troop RAE 1963 to 1965 PAGE VII
This book is going to invoke many happy memories for the Sappers who served in the
Royal Australian Engineers throughout the 1960s and early 1970s – particularly those
who were fortunate enough to join the Australian contingent based at Terendak as part
of the British Far East Land Forces (FARELF).
I can recall a sense of envy when the 2nd Field Troop of 1 Field Squadron was raised to
FARELF establishment to head off on what most of us thought was the only foreseeable
military adventure for young Australian servicemen at that time. Little did most of us
realise that we would also find ourselves on British rations with the meat allowance
before much time had elapsed.
Before 2 Troop’s tour of duty in South East Asia was completed in 1965 the Australian
Army had become engaged in conflicts in both Malaysia and South Vietnam and we
were all confronted with opportunities for adventure. During Confrontation most
Sappers serving at the time were going to have some experience of service in Asia.
2 Troop itself was to be a part of this expanded effort, with operational deployments to
Thailand and Sarawak.
When 2 Troop journeyed back to Australia it returned to a vastly expanded and
changing Army. It would never really be the same again. Members of the Troop were to
serve with many other units in equally exciting places, and to make their professional
contribution to the expanded Army. But what should be of great interest to all students
of the military ethos is the fact that, despite its members having many different and
stimulating experiences, the two years from 1963 to 1965 has bound them together in
a spirit of camaraderie that has endured now for four decades.
A part of the reason for this must be due to the fact that it was an accompanied tour,
ensuring that it was a total family experience as well as a professional military journey.
Being part of a larger allied unit and formation would also have something to do with
the esprit of the time and the strong memories it has left. 2 Troop was always on its
mettle to prove that it was better than the Brits (which it was), making each
achievement a triumph in some way.
Produced by the 2 Field Troop RAE (1963-1965) Association, this book does justice to
that memory. It is also timely in that it captures the precious memories before they grow
dim, or virtual! It is both interesting and stimulating and will, I am sure, be a major
contribution to the many reunions to come. I congratulate the authors for their success
in capturing the spirit of an experience shared by a select group of the RAE family and
a job well done.
The members of 2 Field Troop RAE (1963-1965) Association
greatly appreciate the financial support for this
publication from the Corps Committee of the
Royal Australian Engineers.
A History of 2 Field Troop RAE 1963 to 1965 PAGE IX
When 2 Field Troop RAE deployed to Malaya in 1963 many of the members were
accompanied by their families. An attempt has been made throughout this book to
recognise the contribution made by these ‘associate’ members. For the wives and
children it must have been a difficult and, at times, lonely posting in a foreign country,
far from the support of family and friends, yet they have done their families and the
Also, throughout the book there is mention made of events unrelated to 2 Troop. These
events have been introduced in an effort to fix the history of the Troop in relation to
the world events of that period. Imperial units of measurement were used in 1963-65
and so they have been retained in the text.
Although the Federated States of Malaysia came into existence shortly before 2 Troop’s
deployment to the region, the posting was generally known as Malaya, rather than
Malaysia, and both the title and text throughout the book reflect this terminology.
This book could not have been written without the help of a great many people. We
express our appreciation to the friendly and helpful staff at the Mitchell Library in
Sydney and the National Library in Canberra, David Sibley, editor of Army The
Soldier’s Newspaper, and all the troop members for their contributions and input. In
addition, special mention needs to be made of a number of people: Barry Lennon, for
his clear and concise advice at the very beginning of the project, and continued
valuable input throughout its development; Dave Wood and Bill Jones for their
countless hours spent in consultation on all topics, and their assistance with endless
research – the book would not have been finished without your selfless contributions;
Alan Hodges, not only for considerable material content, continous support and
encouragement, but also for his editing skills, taking a fairly ordinary document and
turning it into a manuscript fit for publication; proof reader extraordinaire, Beryl
Hodges, thanks Beryl; and Alan’s friend Bill Laing of Spectrum Graphics in Canberra,
who donated his valuable time and considerable expertise, and that of his staff, to
produce the finished product. Just saying thanks hardly seems adequate, Bill – perhaps
we could make you an honorary 2 Troop Sapper.
Finally, every care has been taken to ensure the accuracy of all material contained
within the book and if there are errors or omissions they are entirely the fault of the
David Wicks and Simon Wilson
PAGE X DESTINATION: MALAYA
Abbreviations and Glossary
ADF Australian Defence Force
ANZUK Combined Australian, New Zealand and UK Force
APC Armoured Personnel Carrier
ASCO Australian Services Canteen Organisation
CB Confined to Barracks (a form of punishment)
CRE Commander Royal Engineers
FAMTO First Aid Mechanical Transport Outfit
FARELF Far East Land Forces
FE Field Engineer
GPMG General Purpose Machine Gun
MO Medical Officer
NAAFI Navy Army and Air Force Institution
NATO North Atlantic Treaty Organisation
NCO Non-Commissioned Officer
OC Officer Commanding
OR Other Rank (Sapper etc.)
PT Physical Training
QM Quarter Master
RAE Royal Australian Engineer
RAOC Royal Army Ordnance Corps (British)
RAR Royal Australian Regiment
RASC Royal Army Service Corps (British)
RE Royal Engineer
RSM Regimental Sergeant Major
SEATO Southeast Asian Treaty Organisation
SLR Self-Loading Rifle
SMG Sub-Machine Gun
SQMS Squadron Quarter Master Sergeant
SSM Squadron Sergeant Major
Amah Female domestic servant
A History of 2 Field Troop RAE 1963 to 1965 PAGE XI
Dhobi Wallah Laundry boy (or girl)
Dyak Dyak is the name applied to aboriginal inhabitants of the island of
Borneo, particularly to the peoples of the interior of the state of
Sarawak. The Dyak are divided into six groups including Ibans.
Garter Flash Elastic garter used to keep hose tops in position with small attached
flag in Engineer red and blue Corps colours.
Gollock British Army issue machete.
Hose Tops Long sock without a foot. Used in conjunction with puttees and
Hutchie Lightweight one- or two-man shelter. Sometimes called a ‘Donga’.
Iban The Ibans, also known as Sea Dyaks, are the only Dyak group that
inhabits coastal areas.
Kampong Native village.
Laterite A high-iron clay and gravel deposit suitable for use in road and
Padang Open space, village common, sports oval.
Panji Stakes set in holes or under water as anti-personnel traps.
Parang Malay machete of variable design and shape.
Puttees A strip of woollen cloth wound around the top of the boot and
ankle for protection and support.
A History of 2 Field Troop RAE 1963 to 1965 PAGE 1
The Raising of 2 Field Troop RAE
In the early 1950s there was international concern about the possibility of Communism
spreading in Southeast Asia. As a result, Australia, France, Great Britain, New Zealand,
Pakistan, the Philippines, Thailand, and the United States established the Southeast
Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) alliance in 1954 under the Southeast Asia
Collective Defence Treaty.
The formation of SEATO was followed in 1955 by an agreement between UK, NZ and
Australia to establish a Far East Strategic Reserve in Penang on the west coast of
Malaysia. Its function was to counter Communist aggression in Southeast Asia and also
to operate against the Communist Terrorists in Malaya. Australia provided, in addition
to an engineer troop, an infantry battalion, a battery of artillery, a contingent of signals
and other support elements as part of 28 Commonwealth Brigade. A squadron of Sabre
jet fighters was based at Butterworth, and there were sundry other military personnel in
Troop photo taken on the 11 Indep Field Sqn parade ground shortly before the deployment to Sarawak in
April 1965. (Wong Photographer)
PAGE 2 DESTINATION: MALAYA
The Australian Government had strongly supported the formation of the Federated
States of Malaysia and, with a contribution to the Far East Strategic Reserve, it was also
providing a tangible means of supporting the fledgling state against the open hostility
displayed by Indonesia. It was felt that by guaranteeing Malaysia’s sovereignty, Australia
was also guaranteeing its own strategic interests in the region.
The inaugural Australian engineer contribution to the Far East Strategic Reserve,
4 Troop RAE, was raised at Casula in 1955 and came under command of
11 Independent Field Squadron, RE (11 Indep Field Sqn) in Penang as part of
28 Commonwealth Brigade. The squadron had a proud history of significant military
involvement dating back to the late 18th Century including deployments to the West
Indies, Crimean War, Indian Mutiny, Egypt and Sudan, including the relief of
Mafeking, and the first and second world wars.
The advance party to Malaya of 4 Troop was led by Lieutenant Peter Gration, who
subsequently rose to Chief of the General Staff and then Chief of Defence Force. In
1957, 2 Troop from 7 Indep Field Sqn replaced 4 Troop, and in 1959 it was in turn
replaced by 1 Troop of the squadron. Another 4 Troop was raised, in 1961, by 1 Field Sqn
and, after a brief time at Butterworth and a deployment to Borneo, it moved to new
facilities at Terendak, 12 miles north of Malacca. 1 Field Sqn was also subsequently
Sprs Trevor Reece, Bob McDonald, Cpl Snow Wilson and unknown. Drilling before blasting,
Rylstone area mid-1963.
A History of 2 Field Troop RAE 1963 to 1965 PAGE 3
responsible for raising 2 Troop, the subject of this book. Surprisingly, the replacement
troop in 1965 was also called 2 Troop and subsequent replacements kept that title. With
the withdrawal of British troops from Malaysia in 1970, 11 Indep Field Sqn departed and
left 2 Troop in support of the Australian battalion. In September 2 Troop was disbanded
and some members were absorbed by the recently-created 9 Field Sqn. So ended 15 years
of continuous service by an Australian field engineer troop within 11 Indep Field Sqn,
RE. Subsequently, the British left a battalion group at Terendak and 9 Field Sqn gained
a British field troop under command. The Squadron later became 28 ANZUK Field Sqn
and, later again, 28 Commonwealth Brigade became 28 ANZUK Brigade.
The beginning for 2 Field Troop RAE (1963-1965) occurred in early 1963 when orders
were raised for 1 Field Sqn to form an engineer troop to deploy to Malaya for a two-year
period, replacing 4 Troop, which was nearing the end of its tour of duty. It was to be an
‘accompanied’ posting, married personnel could take their wives and children, so
competition for a position, in what was considered to be a prize posting, was fierce.
The troop was formed under the leadership of Lieutenant Barry Lennon, and marched
into 1 Field Sqn at Casula on the 29 May. 1 Field Sqn provided the administration,
stores, transport, plant and other support that 2 Troop would require until its departure.
At the time the Officer Commanding (OC) 1 Field Sqn was Major D J Binney. He was
replaced by Major I R Way shortly after 2 Troop’s arrival.
The bulk of 2 Troop’s members came from 1 Field Sqn and
from 7 Field Sqn in Enoggera, Queensland, with four
members from 20 Field Park Sqn (Plant) at Casula. It was
Barry Lennon’s job to mould sappers from these various units
into a cohesive troop and, to this end, much time was spent
in the Rylstone-Gospers area of the Blue Mountains carrying
out typical engineer tasks including road and fire trail
construction, improvised bridging, and drilling and blasting.
A week-long exercise in the rugged Kangaroo Valley near
Moss Vale covered some basic weapons training and ambush
drills although, given the wet and near-freezing conditions,
the troop members could have been forgiven for thinking
they were preparing for a posting to anywhere but the
In hindsight, it seems that, apart from honing engineering
skills, preparation for deployment into a region like Malaya
was not as thorough as it could have been: there was
insufficient weapons training and no period of training at the Jungle Warfare Centre at
Canungra in Queensland. During this period, Australian troops were generally deployed
with little specialist training for the area in which they were to operate.
In early September, Sapper Sam Scales and another sapper were withdrawn from the
troop and were replaced by Sappers Lindsay ‘Nipper’ Simpson and Dave Wicks from 1
Field Sqn. By late October 1963 2 Troop was fit and rearing to go. Inoculations were
brought up to date and the last of the paperwork completed. The troop members were
given pre-embarkation leave to say farewell to family and friends, then assembled once
more at 1 Field Sqn several days before departure. One of the last tasks before departure
for those who were interested and were over 21 years of age was to cast an absentee vote
in the forthcoming Federal election. On departure, the troop was 46 strong, and was
accompanied by 14 wives and 22 children.
Studebaker 6x6 fitted with
tipping body and canopy. Belonging
to 1 Field Sqn, it was on loan
to 2 Troop.
“There were some early difficulties like learning
to wrap ankle puttees so they would stay on,
and finding out what hose tops and garter
flashes were for...”
A History of 2 Field Troop RAE 1963 to 1965 PAGE 5
Chapter Tw o
Malay Peninsula - The First Weeks
Departure day from Australia for 2 Troop was Sunday 17 November 1963, a date still
well-remembered by Sapper Bob 'Macca' McDonald as it was his mother’s birthday. The
journey began with an early morning bus ride to the international terminal at Mascot
where the troop, including wives and children, boarded a chartered Qantas 707. A
refuelling stop at Darwin allowed all to stretch their legs; then the 707 continued on to
Singapore, landing at Paya Lebar International Airport in the late afternoon. There, a
Fokker Friendship and a DC3 waited to fly the troop on to Malacca: marrieds and their
families on the Friendship, the remainder on the DC3. The troop was welcomed at
Malacca by Captain Malcolm van Gelder, who would be the Troop Commander for the
next 12 months, as he had already served 12 months as commander of the now
homeward-bound 4 Troop. Buses transported the troop members to their respective
destinations: families, with some very tired children, to their married quarters, and
singlies to the barracks of 11 Indep Field Sqn at Terendak, their home for the next two
years. As well as the Australian troop, 11 Sqn had two British field troops, and a park
troop with more construction equipment than a normal field squadron, as the squadron
was designed to operate independently without support from other engineer units. The
squadron included a section-strength team (up to 10 people) who were parachute-
11 Indep Field Sqn lines looking out to the straits of Malacca. 2 Troop barracks in the foreground and
NAAFI on the right. Beyond the tennis courts is the ORs mess.
trained so as to provide sapper assistance in capturing an airfield for insertion of brigade
units. It also maintained a diving team of about the same strength.
The first few days were mostly taken up with kit issue and meeting the eight members
of 4 Troop who had remained in Malaya and still had 12 months of their tour to
complete. Unlike the infantry battalion, 3 Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment (3
RAR), which had arrived as a complete unit and brought a lot of its Australian issue
kit, 2 Troop was to be fully integrated with 11 Sqn, and kitted out with British-issue
field kit and troop stores. There were some early difficulties like learning to wrap ankle
puttees so they would stay on, and finding out what hose tops and garter flashes were
for; but generally the kit was well received with the exception of the footwear and
webbing. The British did have an excellent machete, called a gollock, which was far
superior to the Australian issue. The British Pattern 44 webbing looked like it was a
leftover from WW2 and was uncomfortable, particularly when heavily loaded. The
Australian Army by this time had the lightweight American issue webbing, and there
was little to compare between the two. Footwear issue consisted of plimsolls, a sort of
sandshoe, for PT, leather ammunition boots similar to Australian issue but made from
a much coarser grade leather, and green jungle boots with a black moulded rubber sole,
similar to gym boots but with tall canvas uppers that laced up to the calf.
Weapons were issued – the 7.62 mm FN 30 was almost identical to its Australian
counterpart and the SLR (self-loading rifle) was already familiar to all the sappers.
NCOs, drivers and plant operators were issued with the Sterling 9 mm SMG (sub-
machine-gun), a superior weapon and lighter than the Owen, but this meant some
familiarisation training was required. The section machine-gun was a Bren GPMG,
which had been modified to accept the
NATO 7.62 mm rimless cartridge, and
had also been improved so it did not
require barrel changes after each
200-300 rounds fired. Australia had only
recently phased out the older .303
version of the Bren Gun, so those
selected in the machine-gun teams
quickly became proficient.
The food served in the ORs (Other
Ranks) mess came as a bit of a culture
shock. Not many Australians ate kippers
for breakfast (most could not even stand
the smell), the portions of meat were
microscopic and underground mutton
(rabbit) was frequently on the menu.
Potatoes seemed a staple part of the diet,
with spuds being served in as many as
five or six different guises (or disguises)
at the one meal. To compensate in part,
the Australians were paid a ‘meat
allowance’ of 2 shillings and 6 pence per
day, and this was a cause of some friction
with the Brits. The Australians were
already better paid and the Brits could
Rear Spr Alan Pullen, Spr Michael Holloway; Front Spr
John Tomczak, Spr Gary Plumb in ceremonial uniform
PAGE 6 DESTINATION: MALAYA
not see why the Aussies should be paid extra to eat in their
mess. It was doubtful that the allowance was always spent in
obtaining additional protein however, unless it came out of a
Tiger beer can. The married members were not paid the meat
allowance but received 9 shillings and 2 pence per day as a
general family allowance, plus a domestic servants allowance
that varied with the size of the family.
The troops were confined to barracks for the first week,
marrieds excluded, to allow them to ‘settle down’ to their
new environment. During this time, lectures were given on
health issues in the tropics, including an entertaining lecture
by Dr. Nurse (aptly named) on the dangers of fraternising
with the local ladies. A Paludrine antimalarial tablet was
issued to everyone on a daily basis, usually on morning
parade. There was also some instruction on riot control, Brit
army style. Riots were not uncommon throughout Malaysia
at the time, and if the Police could not contain the unrest,
troops could be called in to assist under provisions of Military
Aid to the Civil Power.
On the first weekend leave most sampled the sights and smells of downtown Malacca
and the many sites of historical interest. The ancient city of Malacca (now known as
Melaka) is on the west coast of the Malay Peninsula about 120 miles northwest of
Singapore. Malacca was founded in the 14th Century by Raja Iskandar Shah when
Singapore was abandoned due to Javanese attacks. In its early days, the town came
under Chinese protection of the Ming Emperor Yung Ho. During the 1400s, the town
was the most important port in Southeast Asia and the State of Malacca was a major
trading power with exports of gold, ivory and spices. In the late 1400s the Portuguese
explorers discovered a sea route from Europe to India, and in 1511 the Portuguese
Alfonse de Albuquerque captured Malacca and established a fort there.
Towards the end of the 1500s, the Dutch and English, who each formed an East India
Company, challenged the Portuguese traders. These companies eventually broke
Portuguese control of trade, but it was the wealthier Dutch
company that dominated the region. The Dutch captured
Malacca in 1641, with the assistance of a Malay force from
Johore, after an eight-month siege. The Dutch remained for
nearly 200 years and added their own style of architecture
that still stands. In 1824, the British East India Company
occupied the area, following a treaty arrangement by which
the Dutch exchanged Malacca for the British settlement of
Bencoolen in Sumatra, and formed the Straits Settlements,
which initially included Singapore, Penang-Wellesley and
Malacca. During the Second World War, the Japanese
occupied these areas. In 1946 the Straits Settlements Colony
was dissolved and in 1957 the British ceded Malacca and
Penang to Malaya. The Federation of Malaysia was
proclaimed in 1963, with the merging of the former Straits
Settlements of Malaya, Singapore and the Borneo territories
of Sarawak and Sabah.
Chief of the General Staff, Australia,
Lt Gen J Wilton, accompanied by
Maj Tony Stacey-Marks inspecting
L/Cpl John Barnett’s gollock. Spr
Murray Aitken in the background.
Downtown Malacca 1963
A History of 2 Field Troop RAE 1963 to 1965 PAGE 7
PAGE 8 DESTINATION: MALAYA
Many historical buildings and ruins from
the various occupations of Malacca can
still be seen. The ancient Catholic
Church of St Paul overlooking Malacca
was the temporary burial place of Saint
Francis Xavier between 22 March and
11 December 1553. One particular
attraction of Malacca was Tai Chong,
a store better know by its English name
of Cold Storage. Here, on hot humid
days, strange-tasting but nevertheless
satisfying milkshakes could be bought in
air-conditioned comfort. The historical
features of the city were probably lost on
the sappers, at least on this first visit.
An article in the Bukit Bulletin (a fortnightly Brigade magazine of Terendak news) by
‘Harry Reyer’ captures the atmosphere of a first venture to Malacca:
My hands were perspiring freely. I knew this was to be a dangerous mission. The
hazards I was to encounter on this journey I knew would be many and varied. But,
if I was to prove myself, this was the ultimate test. I glanced nervously at the man
in whose hands I had placed my future. He showed no concern. His face was
impassive; his sinewy hands gripped the controls of his machine. He looked round
cautiously and then sprang into action – the great adventure was on.
It was worse than I had imagined. The Angel of Death was brooding over my head
as the hazards loomed up. Destruction against one of the many obstacles, or a direct
hit by the missiles that ripped past us seemed inevitable. We moved relentlessly on,
not at a smooth pace but progressing in fits and starts, taking every opportunity that
presented itself, squeezing past the dust-covered monsters only to have them bear
down on us again, blaring their
indignation at being passed. Somehow we
evaded them all.
I glanced up at the man. He still looked
impassive but I noticed he was sweating
now and the veins on his face were
bulging slightly – the trip was obviously
taking its toll. My knuckles gleamed
white as my fingernails dug into my
sweating palms and then we slipped out
of the stream and stopped. In the
comparative quiet I felt weak but
triumphant. At last it was over. With
a shaking hand I passed the coin to
the man and moved to the shade. Yes. I had done it – the length of Newcombe
Road in a trishaw.
While the troops were enjoying this first weekend of freedom, the families still settling
into their new surrounds, and the Jones family making arrangements for Lorraine’s 21st
Sprs Lindsay Simpson and Les McNamara taking a conducted tour
of Malacca in a trishaw with local guide.
Cane shops in Malacca were popular shopping destinations.
A History of 2 Field Troop RAE 1963 to 1965 PAGE 9
birthday party, the world was stunned by
the assassination of John Fitzgerald
Kennedy, the 36th President of The
United States of America. The
President was struck in the head by
two rounds fired from a sniper's rifle
while travelling in an open car in
Dallas, Texas around 1.30 pm Friday
22 November (4.30 am Saturday eastern
Australian time, 2.30 am Malacca
Terendak was a large modern military
base, complete with all amenities and on a much wider scale than provided in
Australia. The garrison took its name from the highest hill in the area, Bukit Terendak,
which means the hill of the rice planter's hat. The camp area was 1 500 acres with
an associated training area of 3 500 acres. The camp housed probably in excess of
10 000 people, including married members and their families. It was the home of
28 Commonwealth Infantry Brigade, of which the Australian units were a part.
The NAAFI (Navy Army and Air Force Institutes) was centrally located in the
garrison and was somewhat similar to ASCO (Australian Services Canteen
Organisation) in Australia, but with considerably expanded services. It included a
supermarket with its own butchery and bakery, hairdresser, electrical, watch and shoe
repairers, photographic shop, tailor and a florist. The camp had three churches and a
temple, a cinema (the Loewen, showing films twice nightly with additional afternoon
matinees on Wednesday and Saturday), a large four-storey hospital, four swimming
pools and other sporting facilities, and various clubs with bar and restaurant service.
There were also the St. Andrew's
Commonwealth Club (a sort of drop-in
centre where you could have a quiet
cuppa or write a letter home), the Rose
& Crown pub, several beach clubs for
various rank levels, and a sailing club
with a squadron boat.
Although the camp had 900 married
quarters, it was not large enough to
accommodate all the married personnel
and so many lived outside the garrison
boundaries in comfortable bungalows in
purpose-built ‘villages’ (Bukit Bahru,
Tay Boon Seng). The residents usually
referred to these villages by English
names: Somerset Green, Eden Park, Suffolk Gardens. The married quarters were fully
furnished and included linen and crockery. Each item was worth a certain number of
points and a monthly points breakage allowance enabled replacement items to be
issued. Each married family had an amah, (and sometimes two if the family was large)
St John’s C of E church and the Rose and Crown Inn.
Terendak Garrison swimming pool.
to help with the housework and look
after the children. Some amahs cooked
although there might also be a separate
Neither were the single members left to
fend for themselves. The troop had a
‘boot boy’, Babu, an Indian from
Allahabad. Babu not only polished
everyone’s boots and brass (including
spit polishing the parade boots), but also
made the beds and swept the floor as
well. Laundry and ironing were done by
the ‘dhobi wallah’. Silver, another
gentleman of Indian decent, was the
dhobi contractor (although he
employed local labour to do the work)
and also the Squadron tailor. The cost
to troop members was minimal,
amounting to only a few shillings a week
each. There were no latrine duties, as
the ablution block and barrack
surrounds were kept spotless by the ever-
smiling Malay maintenance man, Baba.
Small wonder Malaya was a popular
The climate was probably a bit trying at
first due to the high humidity, but in fact
was quite equable. The sun rose and set
at around the same time all year round.
There was lots of torrential rain carried
away by large open monsoon drains,
but there were no distinct wet and
dry seasons. The temperature rarely
F, dropping to around 700
at night. The barracks and married
quarters were open and airy with ceiling
fans and shutters rather than windows,
designed to take advantage of the sea
breezes. Each of the barrack rooms
housed eight people with NCOs in
individual rooms at the end of each
The Troop’s first ‘acclimatisation’ task
was to construct a volleyball court
between the barracks. This was followed
by a ‘gentle’ march in section strength
into Jungle East, a training area adjacent
to the garrison. Phase three of the
Sprs Harry Atkinson, John Tomczak, Lindsay Simpson, Ian
Tibbles and Cpl Simon Wilson lending their support to an
Australian food promotion at the garrison NAAFI supermarket.
Babu, 2 Troop’s ever-smiling boot boy, at work
polishing belt-brass and boots.
Typical married quarters in the purpose-built villages outside
the garrison boundaries.
PAGE 10 DESTINATION: MALAYA
acclimatisation period was to be a
three-day exercise in full kit, including
hard rations, into the jungle proper.
Day 1 passed without incident until,
preparing to ‘hutchie-up’ for the night,
the deficiencies of the Brit issue kit,
particularly the bedding, became even
more apparent. Then, while chopping
down some bamboo for his hutchie,
Sapper Nipper Simpson disturbed a nest
of wasps. Not wishing to seem a selfish
fellow, Nipper ran toward a group of his
fellow sappers, sharing his largesse.
Nipper was always well liked in the
troop, but he would not have won many
votes in a popularity contest that night.
Day 2 also left a bit to be desired. After
the troop had marched well into the
afternoon, it was decided the troop had
become ‘temporarily misplaced’ and
they had to backtrack, arriving at an
isolated police outpost, a remnant from
the days of the Malayan Emergency, just
on dusk. It had been a long, hot, trying
day for little or no gain, but the troops
were too bushed to whinge too much,
rolling their groundsheets out on the
concrete floor and sleeping like the
dead. (In Chapter 7, S/Sgt David
Crosby bravely acknowledges that he
managed to read the map on to the
Day 3 saw a return to camp, most of the
way by truck, after a morning road
reconnaissance exercise. Nearly all of the troop returned to camp footsore, and from
then on seldom wore the jungle boots, preferring instead to use the ammo boots with
their Australian issue gaiters.
About this time, several members of the troop were issued with a new Australian design
boot for user trials in the field. It was an all-leather boot with welted rubber soles, and
laced up to the calf. This was the prototype of what was to become known as GPs
(General Purpose), complete with steel innersole for protection against anti-personnel
mines and panji stakes.
Meanwhile the plant operators, Cpl John Bending, L/Cpl Noel Butler and Sappers
Dave Wood and Alan Morris were working with Park Troop constructing a grenade and
rocket range adjacent to the garrison. It was their first experience on a Vickers Vigor
dozer, with its unusual track design (similar to a tank), and the all–hydraulic Aveling
Austin grader. Being experienced plant operators, they did not take long to master the
2 Troop members enjoy a friendly game of volleyball on the
Pouring concrete for the volleyball court, the Troop’s first task
after arrival. The assault course and 25-yard range are in the
A History of 2 Field Troop RAE 1963 to 1965 PAGE 11
PAGE 12 DESTINATION: MALAYA
2 Troop’s first Christmas in Malaya was a
fairly low-key affair with the single
members, in particular, having thoughts
of home. Christmas dinner (lunch) was
served on Christmas Eve by the officers
and senior NCOs as tradition dictated,
and after a few beers everybody’s spirits
Peter and Margaret Stokes held an open
house to usher in the New Year. It was
the first time many had seen a bath tub
filled with cans of beer and ice, and it
was just as well most of the troop
attended otherwise Margaret would not
have been able to bathe for several days.
(See Margaret’s perspective in her
reminiscence in Chapter 8.)
An extract from Cpl Simon ‘Snow’
Wilson’s diary dated 1 January 1964
Saw the New Year in at Peter and
Margaret Stokes’. A terrific party.
Mounted guard at 0900 and was
not feeling very fit. We were
notified that the move to Thailand
had been brought forward, leaving
here for Singapore on 3rd Jan.
Sprs Trevor Reece, Bob Rawson, Cpl Bruce Parsons,
Sprs Les McNamara and Peter Glasson, relaxing after
a one-day acclimatisation exercise in the Jungle East
training area adjacent to the garrison.
Typical Malay kampong (village) similar to many the Troop
encountered on their first acclimatisation march
Lt Barry Lennon doing his once-a-year table service duty,
Christmas lunch in the ORs mess 1963. L/Cpl Brian Cribbs
gracefully accepts a beer.
Thailand and Operation Crown
The Construction of Leong Nok Tha Airfield
Since the Troop's arrival in Malaya there had been talk that it may be deployed to
Thailand for an airfield construction project. The rest of 11 Sqn was to go, but it was
thought that 2 Troop, due to political considerations, might have to remain at
Terendak. Major H A Stacey-Marks, the OC of 11 Indep Field Sqn, had a high regard
for the Australian sappers and was adamant that 2 Troop should accompany the
squadron. The green light was eventually given and, at fairly short notice, the troop
prepared for departure. Part of the conditions of entry to Thailand was that everyone
had to have a current passport. The staff at the Australian Embassy in Bangkok and the
Australian High Commission in Kuala Lumpur must have worked overtime as the
passports were duly issued, with the appropriate entry visas, in early March. In the
interim period, the Australian Military Forces Identity Card (AAF-A129) proved
adequate. The only person who seemed to have a problem was Cpl Snow Wilson. Snow
was as Australian as anybody; however he had been born at Quetta in India (now part
of Pakistan) where his father was serving with the British-Indian Army at the time. The
family migrated to Australia when he was only seven years old, and it never occurred to
him that he needed to become an Australian citizen. After all, he was in the Australian
Army, wasn’t he? He wrote to his mother requesting she contact the Immigration
Department in Perth to have him registered as an Australian citizen, but was advised
that, as he came from India, he would
have to sit a test to ensure his grasp of
the English language was adequate.
Eventually, the problem was solved by
the High Commissioner in Kuala
In the late evening of 26 December
1963 the advance party, including nine
members from 2 Troop, left Terendak
with vehicles and plant for Singapore,
where they embarked on the Maxwell
Brander for Bangkok. The Maxwell
Brander was a 4 255-ton (gross) LST
(Landing Ship Tank), which was built
by Smith’s Dock Co. Ltd. at South
The Maxwell Brander ready to leave Singapore Harbour with the 11 Indep
Field Sqn plant and vehicles, New Year’s Eve 1963.
A History of 2 Field Troop RAE 1963 to 1965 PAGE 13
PAGE 14 DESTINATION: MALAYA
Bank-on-Tees, England, and was launched in October 1944 as LST 3024. It is not
known if she took part in the Normandy landings, but she was transferred on charter to
the War Office in 1946 when she was named the Maxwell Brander. By the time 2 Troop
sailed on her, she was managed by the British India Steam Navigation Company and
contracted to the British Army. The troop felt that the LST was well past her use-by
date, having already been to the bottom several times. After many years of sailing
Southeast Asian waters, albeit slowly, she was bought by Panama in 1968 and then sold
for scrap in Hong Kong in 1969.
With no radar onboard the Brander, her Captain navigated by following the coastline
and, with a top speed of six knots, this made for a long and tiresome voyage. If it was a
quiet Christmas and New Year at Terendak, it was positively subdued for the members
of the advance party en route to Thailand, some of whom had left wives and children
to welcome in the New Year in a strange country alone. From Bangkok, the convoy
travelled northeast, spending the first night at the American base at Korat. Next day it
was on to Ubon, approximately 400 miles from Bangkok, where they were to meet up
with the plant and heavy equipment which had been brought up by rail.
Meanwhile, the main body of the squadron travelled to Singapore by rail, entraining at
Tampin station on the morning of 3 January 1964. Several days were spent cooling heels
at Gillman Barracks, the Royal Engineer base in Singapore, as RAF Transport
Command aircraft were being held in Europe for the possible movement of troops to
Cyprus. The break gave the 2 Troop members an opportunity to explore Singapore
(even though Singapore had been declared out of bounds to the squadron). Then, after
a rather hurried departure from Gillman Barracks (only a half hour's notice) and a fast
trip by bus to Changi Air Force Base, the troop boarded an RAF Transport Command
turbo-prop Britannia for the flight direct to Ubon, Thailand. As well as being home to
elements of the Royal Thai Air Force, Ubon became a major operational base for
United States Air Force incursions and strike missions into Southeast Asia. Also at
Ubon was a flight of eight RAAF Sabre jet fighters detached from 79 Squadron at
Butterworth; their primary role was the
defence of the air base and Thailand’s
borders with Laos and Cambodia. In
addition to the 20 or so flight crew from
Butterworth, there were around 100
RAAF logistic and support personnel at
Ubon and these were rotated directly to
Australia after a six-month deployment.
The facilities at the base had been
erected in 1962 by the Ubon
Detachment of RAAF’s 5 ACS (Airfield
L/Cpl John Barnett exiting the RAF Transport Command
Britannia via the emergency escape chute at Ubon Airport.
There were no steps available for disembarking in the more
Welcome to Thailand
When the aircraft arrived in Ubon, it
was discovered there were no steps
available large enough to service the
Britannia, so the troop was required to
exit via the emergency escape chutes. It
was already late in the afternoon by the
time buses were boarded and the troop
was heading north for Ban Kok Talat,
70 miles away over a rough and only
partially-sealed road. The local buses
were a sight to behold with their fierce
dragon emblems and large tail fins, and
they were obviously built for the small
stature of the local population as leg
room was at a premium.
It was very late and very dark by the
time the troop reached the proposed
camp site and untangled themselves
from the buses. It was then a case of
collecting a camp bed from a jumble of
stores, which should have been very simple except that a very zealous sergeant, in
charge of the stores, decided that everyone should queue up and sign for each item.
While he was being quite officious to Captain van Gelder and S/Sgt. David ‘Bing’
Crosby and others, tired Sappers were removing camp beds under cover of darkness and
getting settled for the night. Common sense finally prevailed. Next morning over a
breakfast of hard rations and a brew, the sappers surveyed their surroundings. They had
been dropped in a paddy field from which the season’s rice crop had been harvested and
only the stubble remained. There were
very few trees but there were a couple of
mounds of stores, which had obviously
been just thrown off the trucks
wherever they had pulled up. Upon the
Squadron’s arrival at Ubon, Major
Stacey-Marks briefed everyone and
advised that there would be very little at
the camp site. He certainly got that
The first task was to get mess and latrine
facilities operational and some shelter
erected. The piles of stores contained
tents and marquees, so over the next
couple of weeks the sappers became very
proficient at pitching tents, at one stage
erecting 15 tents and two marquees in a
day. In all, over 200 tents were erected
plus marquees for the mess, stores,
Typically-decorated Thai bus similar to that used by the
squadron to travel from Ubon to the Operation Crown site.
The first morning in the paddy fields of Ban Kok Talat.
A History of 2 Field Troop RAE 1963 to 1965 PAGE 15
canteen, and administration. Not only
did they have to provide their own
shelter, but accommodation also had to
be provided for the influx of engineers
from other units scheduled to arrive in
the near future. S/Sgt Bing Crosby was
largely instrumental in the rapid
construction of an efficient latrine
facility. With a ‘borrowed’ RAF Pengo
(large diameter posthole digger) and
a couple of chippies he soon had a
framework built over several bottomless
pits which served the camp well for the
duration. So started OPERATION
Water was in short supply and bathing was usually done in a dish. Even shower buckets
could not be used due to the acute shortage of water. For the first week the squadron’s
six 100-gallon water trailers were towed into Ubon each day and refilled, the 140 mile
round trip over atrocious roads taking a heavy toll on the squadron vehicles. Each tent
of four people received a daily ration of one jerry can and this had to provide for both
drinking and ablutions. Eventually a mobile bath unit did arrive and set up a communal
shower, something similar to a sheep-spray race: dirty people in one end, clean ones out
Snow’s diary 15 January:
9 tents and 2 marquees today. Jack Brown had gone off sick with a bad cartilage.
There is a pirate radio station broadcasting to us from across the Mekong in Laos.
We have been listening to 6WF in Perth on shortwave, it's good to hear from home.
We have 3 tents left to put up. There is mail tomorrow, well here’s hoping. We had
our second shower tonight thanks to the RAOC mobile bath unit.
It was the height of the dry season: hot and cloudless. The paddy fields, after countless
years of flood irrigation, were just fine silt, and this quickly transformed into bulldust,
particularly where there was vehicular traffic. This dust got into everything, clothes,
bedding, and especially food, although
in this case it probably improved the
flavour. It also made for difficult working
conditions and was to be a constant
irritant, until the rains finally started
some months later.
Despite the RAOC mobile bath unit,
hygiene was to be a constant problem for
the troops throughout their time in
Thailand. The poor diet, coupled with
limited ablution facilities, ensured
almost everyone suffered from some
form of skin complaint at one time
or another. After the first week or
so, limited supplies of fresh vegetables
A ‘Pengo’ (large-diameter post-hole digger) on loan from the
RAF, drilling holes for the latrines.
Spr Peter Glasson enjoys a bath in a makeshift tub fashioned
from a poncho. Wonder where he got enough water?
PAGE 16 DESTINATION: MALAYA
became available through local purchase, but fresh meat was not seen until the end of
January. The troop cook, Spr Tom Abberfield, did his very best but, with little to work
with, it was difficult to provide a balanced and varied diet.
Bing Crosby recalls:
Several members of 11 Sqn, including 2 Troop, paid a courtesy call on the US
Base, Ubon. They were made very welcome and, as with servicemen everywhere,
the fat (an appropriate term as the reader will see) was chewed over a convivial
glass. When it was explained that the scale of rations at Crown was not good, it
was not being disloyal because the merit of the British individual and section ration
packs was praised by all, especially the inclusion of Cadbury’s chocolate.
The Crown visitors inspected the huge refrigerated stores for meat. It was obvious
that the American ‘cousins’ had sides of beef in abundance. The question of a
trade-off was raised with the currency being beef for Cadburys chocolate.
Back in Crown, the SSM and the SQMS did the sums on available chocolate. The
SSM advanced the view that the CRE would not agree to being helped by the
cousins. This would become a matter of national pride, he suggested. 2 Troop
members didn’t think the venerable SSM was right on this occasion and Capt van
Gelder was asked to inform the CRE of the plan. He was to say that even the
officers would benefit. Astoundingly, the SSM’s view was sustained and national
pride kept the meat rations ridiculously low for the work being done in the field.
There was one plus. The Americans had a weekly milk run from Stateside. After
all, this was an Air Force Base! Cardboard boxes with an insert containing about
20 litres of pasteurized,
homogenized milk were available at
one per week for (of course)
Those concerned realized that to
prevent animosity between the
officers, senior NCOs and ORs,
the milk should remain with the
senior NCOs – and it did!
The kitchen facilities, like everything
else in the beginning, were basic, just
pressure field stoves and one Wiles
cooker (the small two-wheel version, at
that). A bush oven was constructed of
beer and soft drink cans filled with
damp earth When steam developed, as
the oven heated, the cans exploded,
some landing on the ORs mess tent
roof. The Brit who had constructed the
oven sustained some injuries and the
RSM threatened to charge him.
Sapper Dave Cannon was quite a
talented cartoonist and kept 2 Troop
Spr Tom Abberfield preparing to serve lunch in the
gourmet kitchen, while Spr Bill Jones inspects the Wiles
cooker. The bush oven in the background exploded the
first time it was used.
A History of 2 Field Troop RAE 1963 to 1965 PAGE 17
PAGE 18 DESTINATION: MALAYA
entertained with his satirical comment on life at Op Crown, including the exploding-
oven incident. During a tent inspection, several of his more irreverent cartoons were
confiscated by the inspecting officer who considered them to be ‘anti-establishment’.
Unfortunately, no examples of Dave’s creations appear to have survived to the present.
Snow’s diary 20 January:
Short of water all day again. The meals are shocking,
found two pieces of tin in my dinner.
Because it was too hot to drink tea in the middle of the day, a
cold drink consisting of a lemon- or orange-flavoured powder
dissolved in water was usually served with lunch. This
concoction was mixed in a large metal garbage can and was so
potent it dissolved the galvanized coating from the can.
Hence it was called ‘battery acid’. When mixed in the correct
proportions however, it was actually quite a refreshing drink.
By the end of January 1964 the 'tent city' was completed, and
work commenced at the main construction site a couple of
miles down the road, and adjacent to the village. The village
people were friendly and industrious and soon after the
squadron's arrival they were satisfying the troop’s needs, be it
a cold soft drink or dhobi facilities. The most popular
villagers by far were the watermelon vendors from whom a
cool delicious melon could be bought for just two Baht (10 pence). The SSM, Tom
Thornton, decided to bring the watermelon sellers under ‘military control’. He had
Tables Field Service set up at the entrance to the camp area and priced each watermelon
with a crayon. He became the camp expert judging ripeness and size, but had an
occasional argument with the sellers who thought that their fruit was larger and that his
pricing structure did not reflect that in comparison to others. He would wave his cane,
speak loudly and rapidly and, given his imposing height of 6 foot 4 inches, his will
prevailed. What the locals really thought of these visitors
from Australia and Britain is uncertain, but it cannot be
imagined they were too impressed with losing a large tract of
their traditional rice-growing land for an airfield they didn’t
particularly want or need.
Water, or the lack of it, was still a grave concern. After the
first week all the camp needs were met from the village well,
which had been equipped with a pump by the squadron. It
was however only a limited supply and, in addition to the
camp, it still had to provide for the needs of the village and
their livestock. Before the start of Op Crown, the Thai
Department of Mineral Resources had conducted a
geological survey of the area, and drilling for water was still
going on apace, with absolutely no success. There was no way
the village well would be able to supply the quantities of
water required for the compaction of the roads, helipad and
runway. In desperation, the CRE of Op Crown, Lieutenant
Colonel Harry McIntyre, agreed to let a 2 Troop member,
L/Cpl John Armitage, divine for water, amid much derision
Spr Ian Tibbles and ‘Guts’ a loveable
local villager who became a constant
companion of 2 Troop.
Soft drink entrepreneurs from
the local village under a
Even more popular with the troops
were the watermelon vendors.
A History of 2 Field Troop RAE 1963 to 1965 PAGE 19
from the geologist and the drilling team. Nevertheless, water
was found on the first try, and this bore, along with another
also divined by John, provided all the water required for the
permanent camp and the airfield construction. John
Armitage’s divining skills were put to further use on his
return to Malaya where he found water on several oil palm
plantations, considerably enhancing troop funds in the
On 11 February the Troop received the sad news, from
station 6WF Perth via Snow’s shortwave radio, that HMAS
Voyager had been sunk in a collision with HMAS Melbourne
while conducting night exercises in the Jervis Bay training
area. A total of 82 crew members lost their lives.
Construction of the Main Camp
2 Troop's first task at the main construction site after the
perimeter fence was the erection of the workshop buildings.
These consisted of eight steel Romney huts. Not only were
these difficult to assemble due to being badly transit-
damaged, but also, with daily temperatures hovering around
F mark, the galvanised sheeting and steel frames
became almost too hot to handle. Add to this the glare and
the blowing dust, and the working conditions could best
be described as difficult. In spite of the adverse conditions,
all the buildings were finished by the end of February 1964,
complete with concrete floors. Major Stacey-Marks was
impressed enough to shout the Troop three cartons of
coldies. Also during February, the troop poured the footings
for the Braithwaite tank stand for the camp water supply.
Pouring concrete at Op Crown had it own special set of
problems. Firstly, the aggregate was more a kind of shale than
gravel and very difficult to work with. The parched soil, high
temperatures and low humidity meant the mix set almost as
soon as it was poured and, to add further to the Troop's woes,
it was suspected the cement supplied to them was a quick-setting type usually used for
In late February there was a dramatic change in the weather with strong cold winds
blowing from the northwest, reputably from the Gobi desert in China. The temperature
plummeted and with no warm clothing everyone suffered, and the blowing dust was
even worse than usual. Fortunately, the change only lasted for about a week then it was
back to the daily 1000
F plus. The nearly-completed helipad had its first tryout about this
time when a Royal Thai Air Force Westland Wessex landed to evacuate a Brit who had
injured his back. The MO (Medical Officer) deemed he could not be safely transported
to Ubon by ambulance because of the very rough road.
After the initial requirements of setting up the base camp were met, the troop shifted
from a 7-day working week to 5 days. Overnight leave was approved and this was
usually taken in Ubon, although there were excursions to Mukdahan on the Mekong
L/Cpl John Armitage divining for
water. (Army The Soldiers
Newspaper 14 May 1964)
River and other places of interest in
the region. Capt Malcolm van Gelder’s
extensive reconnoitring in the
Laos/Cambodian border region was
popular with the sappers and he could
always be guaranteed to have a full Land
Rover each time he went out. Malcolm
and a party from 4 Troop had been
involved in a combined exercise and
reconnaissance of the general area
during May and June of the previous
year during Exercise Dhana Rajata.
On Sunday 1 March 1964 a team from 2
Troop travelled to Ubon for a friendly
game of Aussie Rules against the RAAF.
It was a bit one-sided, the RAAF
winning 7 goals 11 to the troop’s 1 goal
5. Still, a great time was had by all.
Members of the squadron had also
constructed a wooden volleyball court in
their own time and games were played
regularly, usually 2 Troop against all
Snow’s diary Sunday 8th March:
What a day; the boys from Ubon
came back a bit under the weather,
and broke…and Mukdahan…that
was a different story. Five of the
boys decided to go to Laos over the
Mekong, stole a boat and sank it,
and all are now in the Mukdahan
The Mekong River at Mukdahan was
the border between Thailand and Laos.
On one visit to the town, five 2 Troop
sappers decided they would like to visit
Laos, in spite of the fact it was very
much out of bounds and would have
required a passport and visa anyway.
Changing their Thai currency for
Laotian Kip, they ‘borrowed’ a local boat
to transport them across the river. The
Mekong at that point was about 1 000
yards across and, in spite of it being the
dry season, was still flowing quite
strongly. About halfway across, the
outboard motor stopped, and the
Sgt Jack Brown and Sprs Humphrey Dodd and Darryl Hess
erecting the perimeter fence at the main camp site.
Sprs Harry Atkinson, Dennis Fitzhenry and Darryl Hess
sheeting the first Romney hut with the aid of a ‘mobile
scaffold’ constructed on the tray of a 3 ton Bedford.
Spr Ian Tibbles delivering cladding for a Romney in a Rough
Rider motorised skip, complete with accompanying dust.
PAGE 20 DESTINATION: MALAYA
sappers, all experienced in boat-
handling, moved to the end of the long,
skinny craft to offer advice to the
nominated driver. With all the weight
in the stern, the boat stood on its end
and disappeared below the water. After
being rescued from the river, the group
was thrown into the local lock-up
where they were held until a none-too-
happy Barry Lennon arrived late that
night to bail them out and reimburse
the boat owner for his loss. Several days
later all five faced the table and were
given seven days CB (confined to
barracks with additional duties), no
leave for a month, and deductions from
their pay until full restitution was made
for the lost boat and motor. (A rather
different perspective on this event is
recorded in Chapter 8.)
Since the start of Op Crown the 11 Sqn
plant operators had been busy preparing
the foundations for the construction
site, building access roads, starting
preliminary work on the helipad and
main runway, and clearing overburden
from borrow pits. They had collected
the construction plant from the Warin
Chamrap railhead near Ubon, driving
the graders and other wheeled
equipment the 70 miles to Op Crown.
With the tented accommodation now
ready, troops from 59 Field Sqn RE and
54 Corps Field Park Sqn RE began
arriving direct from Singapore and the
UK. With them came their heavy plant,
Cat D8s, Gainsborough wheeled dozers,
open-bowl scrapers and other specialist
equipment, and now the earthworks
could begin in earnest. The fine soil and
dust were first removed, then laterite
from the borrow pits nearby was laid
and compacted. Because the land was
previously rice paddy and reasonably
flat, large amounts of fill were required
in some areas to ensure adequate
Capt Malcolm van Gelder assesses the capacity of a bridge to
support the Land Rovers while on a reconnaissance near
2 Troop Aussie Rules team preparing to play the RAAF at
Cat D8 and open bowl scraper of 54 Field Park Sqn taking
material from the borrow pit for placement on the construction
site and helipad.
A History of 2 Field Troop RAE 1963 to 1965 PAGE 21
PAGE 22 DESTINATION: MALAYA
With the influx of personnel, the mess
facilities were being strained to the limit
so a staggered shift system was
introduced to ease the problem. Reveille
for the early shift was 0500, the late shift
starting work at the normal time. The
shifts were alternated week about.
The Free Thai Airfield
With the influx of heavy plant and
equipment of 54 and 59 Sqns, a small
contingent of 11 Sqn plant under WO2
Dixon RE was detailed to begin a
secondary airfield project on a site some
15 miles northwest from Ban Kok Talat at Ban Sawat. Known as the Free Thai strip, it
was in fact only a DZ (drop zone) which had been built by Thais opposed to the
Japanese occupation in WW2, so that arms and medical supplies could be parachuted
to the resistance movement. Included in the nine-man contingent were 2 Troop’s Cpl
John Bending, and Sprs Dave Wood and Alan Morris. Their total plant consisted of two
Fowler light dozers, one Aveling Austin grader, a towed multi-wheel roller, a Foden
water tanker, two Commer tippers and a Land Rover. With this limited equipment the
team managed to turn an ox cart track into an 15-mile access road and clear, form and
surface with laterite a 700-yard airstrip in less than three months. At one stage it took
three days just to remove a very large tree from the road alignment with only the light
dozers at their disposal.
Dave Wood recalls:
The road was the width of two dozer blades with about a 20-foot carriageway and
side drains to suit prevailing conditions. We camped on site each night just short of
whatever village we were going through at the time. After reaching the airstrip site
we established a more lasting campsite complete with a sleeping tent and cooking,
shower and latrine facilities. As we were without a front-end loader we constructed
a chinaman, using timber from an old bridge we demolished. The chinaman proved
very effective for loading the tippers but
was not so good when it rained as it could
only be drained by pumping the water
During this time I think most of the crew
developed a taste for the local Thai food
as we were frequent guests to the local's
homes for meals. Some of us were invited
to attend the local schools to talk and
show some pictures of the countries we
lived in. We also carried out some basic
first-aid treatment to the locals along the
way and also during our stay at the Free
Thai strip. Another highlight was the
The nearly-completed camp from on top of the Braithwaite
water tank. Workshops in the foreground, NAAFI in the
distance and ORs mess in between.
RNZAF Bristol Freighter, the first aircraft to land at the
newly-completed Free Thai airfield, welcomed by crowds of
locals who just appeared from the surrounding bush.
A History of 2 Field Troop RAE 1963 to 1965 PAGE 23
water festival which was held about mid-April after the rains had started – not sure
what it was called but do know they throw water on everyone for good luck. We
decided to take part in the festivities so we filled the water truck then used the
pressure pump to spray everybody, including the local Buddhist monks who, I might
say, were not that impressed.
In addition to the road and airstrip the team also constructed a 9-hole golf course
(under instructions from CRE Crown). The first plane to land at the Free Thai Airstrip
was a Kiwi Air Force Bristol Freighter with the New Zealand Prime Minister, Mr Keith
Holyoake, on board. They saw the strip and thought they would ‘just drop in.’ The
‘official opening’ by the British Attaché to Thailand, who arrived in a DeHavilland
Dove, was several days later. The Attaché’s pilot treated the construction crew to a joy
flight and an opportunity to see the fruits of their labour from the air. During late April,
with the main tasks completed and insurgents becoming active in the area, the
contingent returned to the main camp.
Snow’s diary, 10 March:
Hold-ups on road to village by armed locals. If this keeps up someone could get
When the Squadron arrived at Ban Kok Talat there were no bars in the village but, with
the influx of thirsty troops, bars sprang up overnight, almost as if by magic. The main
drink served was Singha, a pleasant lager style beer brewed in Bangkok, but a spirit
called ‘Mekong Whisky’ was also popular with some of the patrons. This fiery
concoction, made from grain, juniper berries and various other unknown ingredients
was a real ‘fighting’ drink and also caused temporary blindness if partaken of too
generously. The often inebriated patrons walking back to camp for the 2230 curfew
sometimes found themselves the victim of a hold-up by armed local bandits.
Fortunately, no one was seriously hurt in these encounters and a police crackdown and
some summary Thai justice during late March all but ended these encounters.
During March, 2 Troop started on the MRS (Medical Reception Station) and hospital
building. Timber frames were prefabricated on site, erected, and then clad with
corrugated galvanised iron. This building was fully-lined inside and fitted with ceiling
fans and even boasted an air-conditioner in the treatment room. The troop also poured
the foundations for the power station
and built several prefabricated site sheds
around the construction site.
Around this time, the Op Crown flag
mysteriously disappeared from the
flagpole to be replaced by a ladies bra.
The CRE nearly had apoplexy and, to
add insult to injury, the bra became
stuck at the top of the flagpole and a
crane had to be brought in to remove
the offending undergarment. A little
later on, the RASC flag from
the FAMTO (First Aid Mechanical
Transport Outfit, although usually
known as the Fuel and Motor Transport
Partially-completed MRS and hospital building with the
Braithwaite tank and one of the Romney huts in the
PAGE 24 DESTINATION: MALAYA
Office) store also disappeared, but
unfortunately it was lost to posterity
many years later when the Wicks family
lost their house and all their possessions
in Darwin’s cyclone Tracy.
The monsoon season was approaching
and this would signal the end of major
construction work for several months.
The first downpours started at the end of
March and caused quite a sensation in
the tent city, as not only did the tents
leak, but also the rice paddies filled and
inundated the tents as well. The floors of
the tents had been laid with coir matting
in an attempt to reduce the dust. (The
coir matting had been 'salvaged' from the packaging in which the tents were originally
consigned.) Breeding under the matting were all sorts of nasties including some very
large scorpions. As the tents flooded, the nasties moved to higher 'ground', which
meant climbing up onto the camp beds. This was particularly exciting when the
downpour occurred in the wee dark hours of the night, and it gave added incentive to
make sure the mosquito net was tucked in tightly. Thankfully, by this time, several of
the accommodation blocks at the main camp were nearing completion and some of the
sappers from 54 and 59 Sqns were moving house so the tents could be dismantled,
although 11 Sqn, including 2 Troop, remained under canvas for the duration of the
The sod-turning ceremony signalling the ‘official’ start of Op Crown was performed on
3 April 1964 by the Thai Prime Minister, Field Marshal Thanom Kittikachorn, who
named the airfield after the late Prime Minister Sarit Thanarat. There were a 60-strong
Thai Army guard of honour and a brass band, and a combined Australian, New Zealand
and British ceremonial guard also. Security was tight in and around the construction
site with armed Thai Militia everywhere. The Prime Minister arrived by luxury twin
rotor helicopter, landing on the recently-completed helipad. After the traditional
inspection of the guard, the Prime Minister climbed aboard a Cat D8 (after it had been
A Buddhist Monk blesses the Cat D8 before the sod-turning
ceremony marking the official beginning of Operation Crown.
Combined Australian, British and NZ guard of honour for the official start of Operation Crown
await the arrival of the Prime Minister of Thailand.
A History of 2 Field Troop RAE 1963 to 1965 PAGE 25
suitably blessed by a Buddhist Monk) and, with the help of
the Kiwi plant operator, pushed over a tree left standing
especially for the occasion.
A near-tragedy occurred in the early hours of Good Friday
when one of the 2 Troop tents caught fire, probably started
by a cigarette carelessly discarded by a passer-by. The entire
tent was engulfed in seconds, and the four occupants,
Sappers Frank Sexton, Mick 'Moose' Sutton, Arthur
'Geordie' Sinclair and Cpl Stan Limb were lucky to escape
with their lives. Little was saved, the heat being so intense
that even the aluminium trunks melted and the contents
burned. Next morning Moose Sutton displayed his melted
radio complete with his grinning denture inside the fused
components. Bing Crosby recalls that he told Moose to keep
it as a memento/sculpture as it was unique and would
eventually be valuable. Unfortunately Moose did not accept
that advice. Despite the dogged effort of Malcolm van
Gelder to get compensation for loss of personal and civilian
effects, the answer was ‘they were told to insure property
against loss’. On the other hand, the CRE Crown flag
thankfully survived, buried safely in an ammo box deep
under the coir matting. (Several years later this flag was
presented to the Sportsman’s Club at 21 Const Sqn
Puckapunyal by Moose Sutton.) While watching all he
owned go up in flames and wearing only a towel, Geordie
Sinclair was berated by the RSM for being incorrectly
April brought the news that 7 Field Sqn from Enoggera in
Brisbane was to be sent to Sabah the following month. Part
of Australia’s commitment to Malaysia was to provide
military support, but it still wished to avoid direct contact
with Indonesian forces and, no doubt, saw the provision of
an Engineer unit as achieving both objectives.
Also in April, Op Crown had its first two serious accidents,
one fatal. A cook from 59 Sqn RE was badly burned while filling a pressure stove. There
was no helicopter available to evacuate him so a couple of plant operators, including
Noel Butler, worked throughout the night to prepare a section of the main runway to
accept a STOL (short takeoff and landing) type aircraft. The pilot was not too happy
with the surface but he landed and lifted the injured cook out. On 21 April a Brit
electrician, only newly arrived from UK, was electrocuted while working on powerlines
within the construction site. In spite of the best efforts of the MO he could not be
A visit by the New Zealand Prime Minister, Mr Holyoake, and the Commander in
Chief, Far East Command, went largely unnoticed by the workers at the construction
site, except maybe the Kiwis and those at the MRS and hospital building, which rated
Spr Frank Sexton looking rather
forlorn amid the ruins of his fire-
ravished tent on Good Friday 1964.
Anzac Day 1964
Anzac day was approaching, and in spite of Malcolm van Gelder’s best efforts, the
Australians were not to be granted a full day of rest. However a contingent of Kiwi plant
operators and carpenters had arrived in March as New Zealand’s contribution to Op
Crown, and the Anzac force, along with the recent visit by Mr Holyoake, convinced
the powers that be that the day should
be accorded the respect it deserved.
After a 0400 reveille, a combined Anzac
and British dawn service was held at the
construction site. This was followed by a
gunfire breakfast with some excellent
British Navy rum which had been flown
in from Singapore as the result of
Malcolm's persistence and emphasis on
the ‘tradition’ that the British initially
failed to appreciate. The rum was served
in waxed sputum cups, compliments of
Later, some of the troop repaired to
Ubon to celebrate further, and to play a
game of rugby union against the RAAF. The RAAF won 6 points to 3. Those who
remained at the camp continued on with a gunfire lunch.
The ORs mess was completed at the main camp by another unit and its first use was the
gunfire breakfast after the dawn service. With the weight of the large crowd, the piers
supporting the floor sank into the rain-softened earth. It seems that no sole plates or
concrete pads had been used under the piers. From the 26th all meals were served at the
new mess, the first meal being bully beef. The change of venue and improved kitchen
facilities had obviously not improved the menu or its presentation.
The hospital was completed by 2 Troop by the end of April and the MO brought the
troop a couple of cartons. (Some wag suggested it was only a couple of cans and a carton
of straws.) It must have been very difficult for the MO to have maintained a reasonable
medical service for both the soldiers and
the locals amid the blowing dust, with
just tents and a marquee for an MRS and
hospital, and so he was overjoyed with
his new facilities.
During the previous six weeks, in
addition to the hospital, the troop had
also constructed the power station and
the FAMTO store, using the same
prefabrication techniques. Meanwhile,
the Brits of 11 and 59 Sqns had erected
a Braithwaite tank and stand for the
camp water supply, installed three
diesel-powered generating sets in the
power station and erected the
Erecting the prefabricated wall-section of the FAMTO store
requires a solid team effort.
Barrack hut based on a design by WW2 Australian Army
Engineer in Chief, Major General Sir Clive Steele. It is
doubtful that Sir Clive would have been impressed with the
PAGE 26 DESTINATION: MALAYA
distribution lines throughout the camp. They had also constructed a range of other
buildings including the Sgts and ORs messes, accommodation barracks, and the
NAAFI. The accommodation barracks were supposedly based on a 1940 WW2 design
by Major General Sir Clive Steele, an Australian Army Engineer-in-Chief. The
finished product bore little resemblance to Sir Clive Steele’s original design and the
workmanship left much to be desired.
By May all of 11 Sqn's designated tasks were completed. With able assistance from
2 Troop the Squadron had established a tent complex to house three squadrons of
Engineers, nearly 900 men in all, constructed a permanent camp with all facilities,
begun preliminary work on the access roads, helipad and main runway, and completed
the Free Thai airstrip and access road. The completion of the Crown airfield would be
left to 54 and 59 Sqns who would be joined by the Royal Air Force 5001 Const Sqn,
and other support units. After the earthworks were completed the 5 000 feet runway
and dispersal areas were covered with a 6-inch layer of cement-stabilised laterite,
topped with two and a half inches of hot mix asphalt. The completed airfield was
handed over to the Thai Government in June 1965.
Malcolm van Gelder provides an overview of the reasoning behind Operation Crown
and some of the design parameters:
If only in a minor way, Australian sappers were involved in Operation Crown from
late 1962 when Lt Norm Griffith (Troop Officer 4 Field Troop RAE) accompanied
what was believed to be first ground reconnaissance party of the area.
Operation Crown was designed to provide an MRT (medium range transport)
airfield in northeast Thailand as part of the UK’s contribution to the SEATO
program for improving logistical facilities in Thailand. More specifically the
purposes of the airfield were:
• To deliver troops, supplies and equipment for a Brigade Group (initially).
• The deployment of fixed and rotary wing short-range takeoff and landing
• To provide a means of subsequent maintenance of the force.
Boiling the billy during the first weeks at the main camp site Op Crown. Sprs Ian Tibbles and Darryl Hess, Sgt Jack
Brown, Spr John White and L/Cpl John Armitage preparing the alignment for the perimeter fence.
A History of 2 Field Troop RAE 1963 to 1965 PAGE 27
The airfield location was strategically midway between the two US bases of Ubon
and Nakom Phanom, but not too close to the Mekong River, the border with Laos.
In fact, the Mekong was 33 miles to the east and 35 miles to the north.
The 5 000 foot design length of the airfield was to cater for Hastings, Argosy and
Beverley aircraft. Parking areas were to provide for up to 10 MRT aircraft, six
helicopters and a fuel area for two 10 000-gallon pillow tanks. The design glide
angle was 1 in 50 with 15 degrees splay.
Following an example such as the Nakom Phanom airfield, the pavement was to
have been constructed to LCN (load classification number) 30 based on 10 inches
of compacted laterite, with the top 3 inches mixed with bitumen. Surfacing options
considered were using PSP (pierced-steel plank), a conventional bitumen prime and
seal or concrete.
On 4 May 1964 the main body of 11 Sqn, including most of 2 Troop, packed up and
said farewell to Ban Kok Talat, travelling by local bus once more to Ubon. There, a
chartered British Eagle Britannia waited in the hot sun to fly them to Singapore. This
time there were actually stairs to board the aircraft. Following the landing at Singapore,
the troop was hustled on to a train for the overnight journey to Tampin, (with sleeping
compartments, would you believe?) and 24 hours after leaving Op Crown, the bulk of
2 Troop was once again 'home'.
Meanwhile, the transport party loaded their vehicles and plant on to the train at Warin
Chamrap, the railhead near Ubon, leaving Op Crown on the 8 May 1964 for the last
time. An overnight train trip to Bangkok followed and then to the Maxwell Brander,
which was waiting to be loaded before sailing for Singapore. By now the Brander had
been fitted with radar and other navigation devices and the return voyage only took
three days. The transport party finally
straggled into Terendak on the 14th
arriving in dribs and drabs due to
numerous vehicle breakdowns. A rear
party of 11 Sqn personnel stayed at
Camp Crown for several more weeks to
provide finishing touches to the MRS
and to strike the remainder of the tents
and ready them for transport.
Operation Crown Postscript
The following is an extract from The
Royal Australian Engineers, 1945 to 1972
Volume 4, by Brigadier P J Greville, CBE
about the subsequent involvement of
11 Indep Field Sqn and 2 Field Troop in
The Squadron (with the new 2 Troop
under Capt Alan Hodges) returned to
Operation Crown in Thailand from
December 1965 to May 1966 … Crown
airfield had been completed in late 1965
Lt Barry Lennon and S/Sgt David Crosby discuss the works
program outside the 2 Troop site office.
PAGE 28 DESTINATION: MALAYA
A History of 2 Field Troop RAE 1963 to 1965 PAGE 29
but water penetration during the wet had led to the failure of the pavement. The
redeployment of 11 Independent Field Squadron was part of a major operation to
correct the problem. It involved stripping two inches of bituminous macadam
surface, repairing the laterite base and laying eight inches of quality concrete on the
5,000-ft runway…The squadron was part of a larger British force of engineers,
plus transport, workshops and stores, totalling 418 men. About 150 Thai nationals
were employed. The squadron was relieved in May by 59 Field Squadron RE and
the task was completed by December.
Twenty years after 11 Sqn’s involvement in Op Crown, John Stevens returned to Loeng
Nok Tha and recorded his visit in The Royal Engineers Journal, Vol 104, No 4. Some of
John’s observations were:
Ubon airport turned out to be a shadow of its former self … One Thai Airways
flight a day and a small RTAF presence is all that is left.
However, Ubon town has grown out of all recognition – wide streets, modern
buildings, a population trebled in size, a new bridge over the meandering Moon
Off on the road to Loeng Nok Tha– a wide straight metalled road, raised above the
surrounding paddy has replaced the laterite ruts, standing water and endless dust of
the dry season. After a coffee stop at Amnat Charoen – remember the 16 foot tall
Buddha image – the local village of Ban Kok Samnam and the entrance to Crown
Airfield was reached in a little over an hour.
The approach track leads to two concrete plinths on which brass plates in English
and Thai commemorate the opening of the airfield. The English version has been
used for target practice and now contains no less that fourteen bullet marks.
The pavement quality concrete of runway, taxiways and apron appears in excellent
condition, though one must remember it has received very little use by aircraft and
a Thai water buffalo is hardly LCN30.
Crown Camp has returned to the bush. The only clearly recognisable features are
the swimming pool … and a concrete slab containing sixteen large holes. – Polaris
silo or perhaps something more mundane?
A stroll down the main camp road and up the nearby village – no beer tins or
Mekong bottles now define the route – revealed a transformation. Ban Kok Samnan
is now a model village – neatly laid out, tidy houses with a metalled road and mains
Perhaps not a lot to show for all the Sapper, REME and RCT ‘blood, tears
and sweat’ which went into Operation CROWN but the airfield is there, intact
and with very little work could quickly be made operational once again. With
the emphasis on tourism in Thailand it might even become MUKDAHAN
“...camp security was again upgraded
with the guard being increased to five
NCOs and 18 ORs, all armed and
issued with live ammunition”
A History of 2 Field Troop RAE 1963 to 1965 PAGE 31
Everyone was pleased to be ‘home’, especially the married members who had been
separated from their families for over four months. A ‘welcome home’ party was held on
the 16 May 1964 and everyone had an enjoyable time.
Security had been increased around the garrison during the Troop’s absence, due to the
threat posed by Indonesian insurgents. The duty guard now consisted of two NCOs and
12 other ranks, as well as a Duty Officer. Two Sterling SMGs with 40 rounds each were
issued to the duty patrol.
Near the end of May, Sapper Harry Atkinson flew home to Queensland, as his father
was very ill. The good news was that he recovered, and Harry returned to Terendak in
An Increase in Troop Numbers
During July of 1963, while 2 Troop was still undergoing
pre-deployment training in Australia, in Malaya, Sharon,
the first child of Bill and Lorraine Jones was born. Bill, the
Troop vehicle mechanic, arrived in January 1963 to join
4 Troop and stayed on with 2 Troop. When Sharon was
born, Terendak Hospital was still under construction, so
she was delivered in the MRS, which was really only a
treatment room and outpatient facility. Shortly after
2 Troop’s arrival, Bob and Marilyn Reed welcomed their
first baby, Donna, who was born a couple of weeks before
Christmas. Bob had completed two years with 4 Troop
and remained in Malaya with 2 Troop for Donna’s birth.
He did not accompany the troop to Thailand and
returned to Australia in mid-1964.
When the new 140-bed hospital complex was officially
opened in Terendak shortly after 2 Troop’s arrival, it
boasted a 30-bed wing, exclusively for use by the families
of the servicemen in the garrison, and this included an air-conditioned eight-bed
maternity ward and delivery suite. The first troop family members to trial the new
facilities were Trish Lennon and Val Plumb. Both Jenni-Lee Lennon and Kevin Plumb
were born in March 1964 while the Troop was in Thailand. In May, John and Betty
Bending welcomed baby Michael and, soon after, the Morris family increased with the
arrival of Shane, a brother for Stephen.
The modern hospital complex at Terendak
Garrison which was officially opened
after 2 Troop’s arrival in Malaya.
Another happy event during May was
the marriage of Sapper Tony ‘Flash’
Farrell. His bride-to-be, Trish, had
arrived in Malaya shortly after the Troop
and stayed with her old school friend,
Betty Bending. The wedding took place
on Saturday 23 May 1964. It was the
first wedding in Terendak’s newly-
consecrated Catholic Church and was
performed by the Australian chaplain,
Father James Boberg.
In January, while the Troop was on its
way to Thailand, Sapper Alan
Richardson, another of the 4 Troop
‘half-and-halfers’, returned to Perth to
wed his fiancée Yvonne, and she too
joined the Troop in May.
Tasks at Terendak
Although enjoying life at ‘home’, 2 Troop members were by no means idle. An old
disused building on the other side of the squadron oval was requisitioned as the troop
clubhouse, and considerable time was spent on renovations. The first party was held
there in June and was voted a huge success.
A large rainforest tree adjacent to the residence of the Brigade Commander, Brigadier
Robert Dawson, had died as a result of a lightning strike, and was considered a danger
to the house. Civilian contractors would normally have been employed to remove it,
but after the lightning strike the locals considered that a spirit resided there, and
regularly lit candles, making it a kind of shrine. The Troop was entrusted with the task
of removing the tree, while still leaving the house intact. Under the direction of S/Sgt
Bing Crosby this task was successfully accomplished.
Some months later, another job for the Brigade Commander consisted of building a set
of concrete stairs from the house down to the beach. In all,
over 80 steps were required, each one individually formed up,
and the concrete carried up the hill in buckets from the
mixer situated on the beach. Sgt Bruce ‘Blair’ Parsons was in
charge of this project and, on its successful completion, the
Brigadier showed his appreciation with a round of beers for
the workers. Brigadier Terence McMeekin who had recently
replaced Brigadier Dawson, subsequently wrote to OC 11
I have been meaning to write you a note to thank you
and your boys for so ably constructing a new stairway to
Commonwealth House. Succeeding generations of
decrepit VIPs – not to mention occupants! – who visit
Commonwealth House will have cause to praise 2 Field
Troop Royal Australian Engineers and those who
The wedding of the year and the first in the newly-consecrated
Catholic Church. Spr Tony Farrell and his bride Trish with
Matron of Honour, Barbara Saxelby (NZ), and Best Man,
Spr Peter Matthews. Cpl Peter Stokes, Spr Doug Canning
and Mary Reece are on the left.
Spr Peter Glasson hard at work
painting the troop club house. Peter,
a painter before enlistment, was
2 Troop’s unofficial painter
PAGE 32 DESTINATION: MALAYA
It is a splendid job most professionally done and – as far
as I could see – with great good heart. Please thank them
very much for me.
In June the Troop received the news that 7 Field Sqn had
arrived at Jesselton aboard HMAS Sydney, to begin its
deployment in Sabah.
At this time Exercise ‘Wide-step’ was held near the garrison
in the Asahan training area, and consisted of building an
improvised bridge over a 60-foot gap, capable of supporting
a 3-ton vehicle. It turned into a competition between
2 Troop and 1 Troop, one of the Brit troops from 11 Sqn.
The task was completed by 2 Troop late in the afternoon of
the second day, several hours ahead of 1 Troop.
The next exercise was an overnighter in Jungle East. Because
it was adjacent to the garrison no transport was involved, so
the troop marched to the area in full kit and set up a
defensive perimeter for a series of ‘stand-to’ exercises. The
heavens opened and, even without stand-tos, no one had
much sleep. Many of the hutchies flooded, and it was a wet
and weary troop that returned to barracks next day.
The troop travelled to Asahan once again, this time for an
explosives exercise and, after destroying a lot of trees,
returned to base.
An ‘Air Portable’ inspection was held on the 26 June. The
troop still had some serious deficiencies in its kit and
essential stores due to shortages within the squadron.
However, this was not considered a reasonable excuse and all
the section NCOs were given extra duties.
'NEVER ASSUME' as told by S/Sgt Bing Crosby
The air portable inspection on the 26 June 1964 had a
dummy run, a day or two beforehand. Capt van Gelder
asked Cpl Graeme Leach what he used as a container
for centralised cooking or brewing up in his section.
Graeme replied that there wasn't a suitable item in the
The Troop Commander was obviously determined that
the troop should present very well. He told Cpl Leach to
find something, such as a pulp-apple tin, from the mess.
On the morning of the 26th, the inspection wasn't going
too well, when Capt van Gelder asked Cpl Leach where
his newly-acquired container was. The reply: ‘I haven’t
been able to get one.’
Commonwealth House, the
Brigadier’s residence, was threatened
by a large tree.
Sprs John White and Les McNamara
float-finish steps on the stairway
project at the Brigadier’s residence.
Exercise Wide Step in the Asahan
training area. A smoke break as work
on the improvised bridge is progressing
ahead of schedule.
A History of 2 Field Troop RAE 1963 to 1965 PAGE 33
Opposite and equal reaction
Capt van Gelder turned to me and told
me to parade Leach to his office after the
inspection. We both stood to attention as
Cpl Leach was given a ‘right bollocking’,
which I found rather embarrassing
because I thought the ‘crime’ wasn't that
serious. I attempted a defence but I was
cut off and Cpl Leach was dismissed with
several extra duties. Later, there were
some fierce remarks outside the OC's
Hearing as Graeme felt that he had been
the victim of – if not a kangaroo court –
certainly a wallaby one.
Inevitable flow on
After Graeme had left, I was asked why I had not followed up on the direction that
Malcolm had given. ‘I assumed that Cpl. Leach, in his usual efficient way, would
have obtained a suitable container’, I said. To this, Malcolm replied: ‘Never
assume. Just be thankful that you are not being formally disciplined.'
I suppose I was thankful not to be disciplined, but my sense of professional pride
and fairness had been dented. Looking back, it was a worthwhile lesson to carry
through life from that day, but I certainly didn't think so at the time.
All this activity was only a lead-up to ‘Raven’, a Brigade-strength exercise also
conducted in the Asahan training area. 2 Troop was to provide engineer support for the
KOYLI Regiment (King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry) and after a 0230 start on day
one, the troop was kept on the move for the ensuing seven days. Its tasks included, as
well as the usual war games, a night-bridging exercise. While travelling in convoy on a
straight stretch of jungle track, the troop
was strafed at treetop level by an ‘enemy’
Buccaneer jet fighter which seemed to
appear from nowhere. Fortunately it was
only an exercise, but it still scared the
hell out of everyone. When ‘Raven’ was
finally concluded, the sappers were
treated to their first shower in seven
days, and their old friends from
Thailand, the RAOC mobile bath unit,
Exercise Raven was the last major
activity for Malcolm van Gelder as
Troop Commander. His replacement,
Captain Alan Hodges, arrived shortly
before the exercise and deployed with
Sprs Clem Finlay and Tony Farrell join others from 2 Troop
boarding the truck for a 0230 start to Exercise Raven.
Sapper ingenuity. Spr John Tomczak, Cpl Graeme
Leach, Sprs Tony Farrell, Ray Logan, Sgt Jack Brown,
Sprs Harry Atkinson, Dave Wood and Norm Looby
with a ‘borrowed’ ox-art, minus ox, just the thing
for carrying all that kit on Ex Raven.
PAGE 34 DESTINATION: MALAYA
the troop. Malcolm and Helen, with their two boys returned to Australia, enjoying a
relaxing and well-earned holiday. Other new Troop members arriving before the start
of ‘Raven’ were Sapper John Tomczak, replacement for the homeward bound Bob Reed,
and Private Ken Johnson, a cook from the Australian Army Catering Corps. Not long
after this, the Squadron 2IC, Captain Mike Arber, was replaced by Major Gordon
Chave. During July, Bruce Parsons was promoted to Troop Sergeant.
Shortly after the return from Exercise Raven, Dave and Judy Wood lost their two-year
old daughter, Roslyn Heather. She had been in ill health since receiving a BCG
injection before leaving Australia. It was a very sad time for the Woods, made especially
hard by being so far from family support. The funeral service was held in the recently-
consecrated OPD (Other Presbyterian Denominations) Church on 25 July 1964, and
the troop members not on duty attended and offered what little comfort they could.
Roslyn was buried near the hospital in the garrison military cemetery, which is now
beautifully maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.
Interestingly, the cemetery was used to bury 24 Australians killed in Vietnam, as well
as those from the Borneo conflict because, at that time, it was Australian policy not to
bring bodies back to Australia for burial. A Vietnam VC winner, Major Peter Badcoe,
is buried there, as is Cpl Bob Bowtell from 3 Field Troop RAE, the first engineer to die
The Cameron Highlands
The Cameron Highlands are in the central mountainous region of Malaya, and have an
elevation of about 5 000 feet and above. The British had used the area as a hill station
to escape the hot, humid conditions of the lowlands, and many retired expatriates had
made it their home. The British Army maintained a rest camp there, and units were
rotated for several days of R and R, usually once during their deployment. A party from
2 Troop, those not required for duty, joined other 11 Sqn personnel for a brief stay. The
golf course, where Mick Sutton lost countless balls, was very picturesque but quite
difficult, and the troops generally enjoyed the novelty of the nights in front of a roaring
The Cameron Highlands is also a major
tea-growing area, and the troop
members enjoyed a tour of one of the
plantations and the processing facilities.
There was also a march through virgin
rainforest, (with very, very steep hills) to
a remote village to see an ancient tribe
of indigenous ‘primitive’ Malays in their
natural habitat, unchanged for hundreds
of years. Just how primitive they were
was evidenced by the fact nearly
everyone carried the latest model
transistor radio. However, it was an
enjoyable four or five-day break from
Terendak, in spite of the long trip to and
fro in the back of a Bedford 3-ton truck.
Well, not so enjoyable for Darryl ‘Fred’
Sprs Arthur Sinclair, Peter Matthews and Bob Rawson take a
breather after walking up very steep hills in a tea plantation in
the Cameron Highlands area of central Malaya.
A History of 2 Field Troop RAE 1963 to 1965 PAGE 35
Hess perhaps. While on guard duty one
night, he was instructed by the Duty
Corporal to take his evening meal break.
When the Duty Sergeant found the
guard room deserted Fred was charged
with leaving his post – the Corporal
denying everything. Fred was returned
to Terendak next day to face the table
where he was relieved of 28 days pay.
If the punishment meted out to the
sappers seemed harsh at times it was
because, as part of a British unit, they
were governed not by Australian
Military Law but by the much
more draconian Queen’s Regulations,
and sentences for even minor
misdemeanours could be quite severe.
While indiscriminate urinating at the
tented campsite at Crown was not
heavily frowned upon, it took a charge of two British sappers by Malcolm van Gelder as
Duty Officer to demonstrate the severity of punishments under these Regulations.
When Malcolm expressed surprise at the punishments given, the sentencing officer
said: ‘Malcolm, if you don’t know the consequences of charging, or object to the severity
of punishment, you should not have charged them.’
Near the end of July the camp security was again upgraded with the guard being
increased to five NCOs and 18 ORs, all armed and issued with live ammunition. This
meant that guard duty was a very frequent event for everyone and, with not enough
NCOs in the Sqn to maintain a reasonable roster, several senior sappers like Bill Jones
and Tony Farrell were seconded to the role of Guard Corporal.
The Park Troop, with attached 2 Troop plant operators, was deployed to the Asahan
training area to construct a heavy-weapons firing range. The project consisted of access
roads, stop butts and abutments, firing
mounds, and bund walls around the
munitions magazines. While it was
essentially a plant operation, some FEs
were required for culvert and headwall
construction, and 2 Troop made its
Sport played a major role in the
squadron, helping keep everyone fit, as
well as providing entertainment. Rugby,
basketball, hockey and volleyball were
played regularly, with 2 Troop providing
its share of participants to the squadron
teams. An inter-troop sports day,
consisting of track and field events, was
won by the troop, as was a swimming
carnival held in August, although
2 Troop lost the water polo competition
The nearly-victorious water polo team, standing,
Sprs Trevor Reece, Tony Farrell, Ken Jolley, John Tomczak,
Cpl Graeme Leach and Team Manager‚ Cpl Bruce Parsons.
Seated, Sprs Dave Wood, Peter Matthews, Norm Looby
and Lindsay Simpson.
11 Sqn basketball team with a strong 2 Troop element.
Standing: Spr John Tomczak, S/Sgt David Crosby, Cpl Bruce
Parsons, Cpl Graeme Leach and Spr Dennis Fitzhenry. Front
row 2nd from right, Spr Peter Matthews.
PAGE 36 DESTINATION: MALAYA