Military History: The S.A.S - Jungle Warriors

This is the strory of the SAS in Malaya, the scene of one of their greatest ever behind-the-lines successes, reliving why this particular campaign acted as the foundation for other famous and successful SAS endeavours.

The SAS were an elite fighting unit born out of the deserts of North Africa during World War 2, but when the war ended, so did they.  However, the principle ideology of the regiment remained, small teams of men, able to survive in extreme environments, whose very presence would pose a phsycological threat to any enemy.

The SAS Logo/Motto - Who Dares Wins
The SAS Logo/Motto - Who Dares Wins
Brigadier Mike Calvert
Brigadier Mike Calvert

A New Battle

In 1950, the SAS were re-formed, this time they would have to fight a near invisible enemy in one of the most inhospitable and dangerous places on earth. The frame of mind that is the modern day SAS, was formed in the jungles of the Far East.

They conditioned themselves in the art of jungle warfare, for 15 years they took part in two secret wars, where their patience and resilience helped to prevent what could have turned into a Vietnam-style conflict for the British.

Even today, they are sent to advise certain countries in the dark arts of jungle combat, but this expertise was born out of humble beginnings.

In Malaya in 1948, there was a crisis inside one of Britain's richest colonies, communist guerrila soldiers, inspired by the revolution in neighbouring China, had began a campaign of violence intended to force out the British.

In order to stop this violence, 30,000 British troops were dispatched to the area, their approach was severe, burning villages and resettling thousands of Chinese immigrants who were sympathetic to the communist cause.

There was on average, 200 civilians dying every month in this undeclared war and the British Army could do little to prevent it. While they guarded the towns on the edges of the jungle, 4,000 guerillas built bases deep inside the jungle itself, and from these, they could operate at will.

In 1950, Mike Calvert, a hard-drinking former heavyweight boxing champion, was given the task of flushing the guerillas out. A former wartime Brigadier with a dominant reputation, he was considered an expert in jungle warfare.

The guerillas were supported by the indigenous jungle tribes who lived deep in the forests, Calvert re-formed the SAS to go in and befriend these people. They were to offer the tribes people medicines and trinkets in return for information as to the whereabouts of the guerrilla camps. The tribes-people were frightened of the guerillas as, threatened with violence, they were forced to grow food for them and serve them, and if they refused, they would be killed.

And so, the SAS persuaded them that siding with them was undoubtedly the better option, in effect, winning the hearts and minds of the local population. Calvert's ambitious and radical ideas were made ever more creative when he ordered the SAS, not to be in the jungle for weeks, but months. 

At this time, it was considered ill-advised and dangerous for any white man to remain in the jungle for any longer than one week.

Unprepared and Impractical

There was no selection process for recruits at that time apart from just a verbal interview. Many of the recruits were national servicemen, keen young officers and a wild bunch of deserters. As a result, although there were many good volunteers, there were also many who were deemed not up to scratch.

The SAS had been sent in to the jungle on a secret mission, but found themselves more like on a safari. The men endured encounters with tigers, monkeys, porcupines and very painful and annoying leeches. They were having to learn about the jungle the hard way and were failing to even find the guerillas, let alone kill them.

Fed up with unproductive patrols the SAS looked for another way in, they decided on surprise attacks by parachuting in directly on top of the communist terrorists. This outlandish idea was known as 'tree jumping'. If all went to plan, each man would be successfully entangled in the top of a tree, where upon, he would simply absail down to the ground. However, many of the men, on collision with the tree-tops, broke arms and legs and thus became sitting targets to any of the terrorists.

Due to the serious injuries and in some cases death due to 'tree jumping', it was considered far too impractical, so it was back to walking for the men. The SAS would have to inprove in the tracking of their enemy. They were taught in this jubgle art by headhunting Borneo Tribesmen who were hired by the British Army. They were taught how to read tracks by assessing broken branches, twigs and upturned leaves.

In this dense and dangerous territory, the enemy could be either 10 miles up ahead or 10 feet away, completely hidden to all and the slightest noise could cost you your life. The first contact between the two sides was almost accidental. The men came across a river and waded in up to knee height, suddenly a figure appeared out of a bush. The SAS fired and had managed to kill one of the communist leaders. They had finally achieved their first scalp, but outside the jungle, trouble was brewing.

Mike Calvert, commander of the SAS, had become seriously ill with a concoction of exotic diseases, he was also now struggling to conceal his own homosexuality. Matters came to a head before a regimental parade when Calvert entered his quarters, collapsed unconscious and died.

A new leader and a new process

In his place came John Woodhouse, ordered with the task of devising a far stricter selection process for the SAS. Wearied by training men for the jungle and then watching them snap under the pressure, Woodhouse came up with a selection course based on the toughness of a recruit, both physically and mentally.

The men were equipped with a rifle, a map, a belt kit and a rucksack with a combined weight of 80 pounds. They were then sent into the Brecon Beacons of Wales for their jungle training. It was then and remains to this day, one of the hardest selection courses in the world. By the end of the third week of training 120 of the recruits were wittled down to just 10. From now on, each man must find the limits of his own endurance. The men were made to climb over the highest mountain in the Brecons, Pen-Y-Fan, three times.

Then if the men managed to complete the triple ascent, an officer at the top of the mountain gave them a mathematical equation to complete before they were considered to move to the final test. Finally an exercise in escape and evasion would have to be completed.

Each man would have to be dressed as an escaped prisoner and dropped into a combat zone, he was given a compass and a crude map and expected to reach a rendezvous point 50 miles away. He had no food and hundreds of men were out looking for him with dogs and helicopters.

The course was meant to take 5 days, so if the man was caught on the first day, he would have to endure four days of interrogation. This meant being blindfolded, handcuffed and stripped naked in an attempt to prepare the man for a real life situation. Any reaction or antagonisation would be considered as failure, as a real life similair situation could mean possible death.

In between bouts of interrogation, SAS instructors would use their initiative to intimidate the recruits. Still blindfolded, the recruits would be handcuffed to the nearest railway line. Rolling stock would then be driven along the line and the guards would pretend that they had lost the keys to the handcuffs in order to put the fear of god into the recruit, only at the last second, would they set him free.

The selection process chooses a special kind of individual, an SAS type, who could fit in with the regiment's unique military atmosphere. Unlike the regular army, there were no parades, no saluting and all the men, officers included, were on first name terms.

Winning the battle.

If soldiers were to operate on their own, then they had to be trusted, this democratic stance originated in the jungles of Malaya. This attitude, combined with the rigours of selection, produced a new generation of SAS man. Each was trained in special skills to fit in to a 4 man jungle patrol. This self-contained unit comprised of a signaller, a medic, a linguist and an explosives expert, and they would be spending months living together.

On average they would be confronted with the enemy around every 100 days and when it happened, it was over in seconds. One patrol on their way back to base camp, encountered two enemy hostiles secreted in the undergrowth. Two shots rang out and the communists lay dead, it was over before it had began.

By 1959, the communists had all but surrendered, Malaya had recently gained independance and the jungle terrorists were an unwanted minority in their own country. A total of 6,400 had died at the hands of the British, 108 had been tracked and killed by the SAS. This figure may seem small in the scheme of things. but the SAS measure their success differently.

They had mastered the jungle and had won over the local tribes who were the cornerstone of the communists defeat. This expertise would prove crucial in their role in the greatest secret conflict of the 1960's.

The Secret War

The British Army entered Borneo to protect their former dependancy from it's aggressive neighbour Indonesia. The Indonesians wanted the island of Kalimantan after already inciting a revolt in neighbouring Brunei and now it's special forces were ransacking and burning border villages and shooting civilians.

Whilst regular troops guarded the towns, the delicate job of finding where the indonesians were crosssing the border, was given to the SAS. The first man sent in was Ozzy McGawn, a fluent Malaysian speaker whose task was to win the trust of the border tribesmen, which would be key to the SAS's success. When he reached the border, Ozzy was to use his own initiative to find out what was going on.

He needed an excuse to talk to people, so decided to set up shop, literally. He started selling imported tea and sugar for the locals to buy in exchange for information. While some patrols stayed close to border towns and villages, others lived in the jungle itself.

For two weeks, the SAS men never spoke, washed or smoked in order to keep themselves undetected, and they only stopped moving at night. the highlight of each day was deciding what to eat, which was another of John Woodhouse's innovations. The only thing was, all they had was tins of sardines or bully beef and the meals were only varied by what they could find to cook with it. For 14 days straight, that was all they ate and after their patrol, they had a two day break and then back into the jungle for another 14 days, where once again sardines and beef were the only food. This carried on for the best part of four months.

Despite the presence of the SAS, the Borneo confrontation was reaching boiling point. The Indonesian special forces began to attack police stations and villages thirty miles in from the border. Determined to show that the British Army were prepared to fight fire with fire, secret cross-border raids into Indonesia were sanctioned by the British government, these were to become known as 'Claret Operations'.

The government were cautious in this approach however, as technically the British were not at war with Indonesia, so the operations were top secret and not to be made public. They were so secret that not even the SAS patrols knew where their other patrols were being sent.

The men were dropped in by helicopter around 400 yards from the Indonesian border, then once across the border, they would never follow any tracks. They were fully aware what surprises, if any, may be left in store for them, with booby traps left all around the jungle floor. The SAS were to act as a pathfinder force, finding targets for larger forces to destroy. If they happened upon the enemy, they were so thin on the ground that their orders were to 'shoot and scoot' and not to be drawn into any kind of battle.

The Indonesian forces knew that the SAS patrols were only 4 men strong, if they were captured over the border, they could expect little in the way of mercy. So once again the Borneo tribesmen were brought in as trackers and they had old scores to settle. If they caught any of the Indonesians, they would kill them, behead them and turn their skulls into ligjhtshades by placing candles in the eye sockets.

As the number of Claret Operations increased, the targets became more important. the base of the enemy's special forces was constantly being ordered to be found. It was positioned at the Kumba River, a waterway hidden deep in the jungle, that the Indonesians used as a major supply route. So far no one was able to find the base or even the river, because four miles of impenetrable swamp protected it from the border.

Finding the Kumba River was only part of the plan, the four men hiding in a shallow ditch four miles inside the Indonesian border, had to let their enemy know they were there. To make a target of opportunity right next to an Indonesian Army base, would strike a terrific phsycological blow to the enemy. Suddenly a barge came down the river towards the men, they opened fire, shot all on board and set the boat alight, before tearing back into the jungle before the Indonesians could cut them off.

A month later, a company of Ghurkas followed the route the SAS men had taken through the swamps and completely destroyed the Indonesian's secret base.

It was a major victory for the British and after two years of the 'Claret Raids', the Indonesians were demoralised as 2,000 of them had been killed, in return just 134 British soldiers had died and only 3 of these were from the SAS.

Active around the world

In the jungles of Malaya and Borneo the SAS had shown that small groups of highly trained men could operate alone and have a dramatic impact. Politicians have not forgotten this and their expertise was called upon in Columbia in the 1980s hunting down drug barons. Again in Sierra Leone in 2000 where they liberated hostages. 

But expertise in jungle terrain alone could never justify the existence of the SAS, there next battle was to be much closer to home, against a much more unorthodox and irregular enemy of terrorists in Northern Ireland.

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