The Brunei Revolt December 1962
Brunei on occasions called the Venice and the Vienna of South East Asia, lies 275 miles north of the equator on the north-west coast of Borneo. The total area of the country is 2,200 square miles of which 75% is covered with tropical rainforest: on the coastal belt mangrove and nipah palm swamp forests are interspersed with areas of cultivation which extend up the alluvial river valleys to the interior.
In the 1960s Brunei was a British Protectorate, ruled by the Sultan, Sir Omar ali Saifuddin, the dynasty had ruled Brunei for over 600 years. Oil had been discovered in the 1930s and the sultanate enjoyed the wealth generated by Brunei Shell.
The Brunei Revolt and Indonesian Confrontation which followed, had their origins in Indonesian opposition to plans to create a Malaysian Federation and Indonesian aspirations for a Greater Indonesia. The Federation of Malaysia aimed to unite the mainly Malay-populated states of the Malayan Peninsula with the former British colonies of Singapore, Brunei, Sarawak and North Borneo. In order to destabilise the process, Indonesia supplied and supported the Brunei left wing militia, the North Kalimantan National Army (TNKU) which favoured a North Borneo Federation. The TNKU aim was to overthrow the Sultan of Brunei and unite the whole of Borneo under Indonesian rule.
By 1962 the strength of the TNKU was estimated to be 4,000 and the revolt in Brunei began on 8 December with rebel attacks in Brunei Town on the police station, power station and HM The Sultan’s palace. The attacks on the police station and the Sultan’s palace were repelled but at Seria, Tutong, Limbang and Bangar the rebels were successful and assumed control as well as taking hostages, many of whom were European.
On 9 Dec 1962 the 1st Green Jackets (43rd and 52nd) under the command of Lieutenant Colonel ‘Tod’ Sweeney MC (a veteran of the 1944 D Day Pegasus Bridge coup de main operation), stationed at the time in Penang, were warned to move to Singapore either for internal security duties there or to be prepared for a move to Brunei. The battalion covered the 450 miles overland to Singapore to 34 hrs and was embarked on HMS Tiger. Late the same night, with the ship sailing at 28 knots towards Labuan, fresh orders came through. The ship was to divert to Miri, in Sarawak’s 4th Division and about 60 miles South of Brunei.
The Battalion was to come under command of 99th Gurkha Infantry Brigade and was to land two companies (Letters ‘B’ and ‘C’ Companies) and a Tactical Headquarters at dawn at Miri to deal with the rebels in the area. At dawn the disembarkation began. Captain Robin Evelegh (later Colonel and one of the ‘founding fathers’ of the Soldiers of Oxfordshire Museum) went ashore in a launch, with half-a-dozen men from the Reconnaissance Platoon, to check that Miri was clear of rebels and safe. Expecting perhaps to be shot at as he landed on the beach about a mile from the centre of Miri town, he was met by a reception party consisting of the Mayor of Miri and the wife of the British Resident. There too was the Regiment’s charwallah from Penang; the intelligence and communications system of that great family of loyal camp-followers over the generations continues to be a matter of amazement!
With Miri still loyal the two rifle companies were landed. There they learned that the town of Bekenu on the Sibuti River, was reported to be in rebel hands and there was also uncertainty as to the situation in Niah. Bekenu is a police and administrative post ten miles up the Sibuti River, some twenty-five miles South-West of Miri and five miles from the coast. Niah is a smaller post some forty miles South-West of Miri on the Niah River.
Dealing with the Niah situation proved to be relatively straightforward, the task being given to Letter C Company under Maj Mark Pennell. The practice of headhunting by the indigenous Iban tribes had been banned by the British authorities in Sarawak but orders were now given that this ban be temporarily lifted. Soon after, the Ibans decorated their canoes with bright red feathers - a clear sign of their intent to take heads - and set off up river towards Niah. By the time that Letter C Company arrived in Niah, also by river, no rebel forces were to be found; hearing of the Iban headhunting parties' imminent arrival, they had melted away into the jungle, never to be heard of again! Credit should also be given to a Rhodesian surveyor who had organized a Niah village ‘home guard’ armed with shotguns.
The CO tasked Letter B Company under the command of Maj David Mostyn (later General Sir David Mostyn KCB CBE) to liberate Bekenu. After a difficult overnight approach on foot, Letter B Company reached the outskirts of Bekenu early on 13 Dec. In his own account of the operation Maj Mostyn said “At 1700 on 12 Dec the company was complete at Tanjong Batu and set off across country with a local guide. The first mile, through mangrove and paddy, was appalling. During a halt we heard that the only bridge over a stream was held by the rebels so, as surprise was essential I decided to take a longer circuitous route. We pressed on through thick jungle and swamp, crossed a small river using native dugout canoes, and eventually reached the pepper garden just West of Bekenu. The last half mile of this journey was along a tree trunk path laid above a swamp. By now it was 0930 on 13 Dec and the approach had taken 16 hours.”
With three platoons engaged in a brief firefight the rebels fled downriver where they were ambushed by a further Green Jackets platoon in a launch and concealed on the riverbank. 6 rebels were killed in Bekenu, 6 captured and about 10 escaped into the jungle. For the next 3-4 days patrols went up and down the river searching for escaped rebels but the operation to secure Bekenu had been a resounding success.
In this insurrection the majority of the population of Brunei remained loyal to the Sultan and by end of December 1962 the revolt was effectively over although the 1st Green Jackets did not leave Brunei until March 1963. Subsequently the battalion served 2 four month operational tours in Borneo during the Confrontation with Indonesia.
Some of the Brunei 1962/3 artefacts in the Soldiers of Oxfordshire Museum