Armed Forces Day: the heroes of Borneo

Members a small group of British Army troops photographed on river patrol during the insurgency in Borneo. Jimmy Skinner, below, is at the rear
Members a small group of British Army troops photographed on river patrol during the insurgency in Borneo. Jimmy Skinner, below, is at the rear
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STEAM rises from the surface of the water, massive palm fronds overhang their tightly packed small boat as the soldiers in their jungle camouflage scour the river banks for potential enemies.

It could be a scene from an old Pinewood set, where the pluckiness of handsome young British soldiers – played by John Mills and Jack Hawkins – is set against the backdrop of the humidity and heat of a foreign land; a director off camera about to yell action at any moment.

Pictures by Lesley Martin '27 May 2014.''Stirling 2014 Armed Forces Day Veteran's Programme was launched today at a gathering of former and current members of the UK armed forces. The gathering included two motorbike mounted members of the Legion Scotland, Ex Tornado F3 navigator Claire Birch and D-Day veteran Peter Cook McColl also joined them.''All eyes will be on Stirling as it hosts Armed Forces Day National Event 28th June.''Jimmy Skinner - Representative of Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders.

Pictures by Lesley Martin '27 May 2014.''Stirling 2014 Armed Forces Day Veteran's Programme was launched today at a gathering of former and current members of the UK armed forces. The gathering included two motorbike mounted members of the Legion Scotland, Ex Tornado F3 navigator Claire Birch and D-Day veteran Peter Cook McColl also joined them.''All eyes will be on Stirling as it hosts Armed Forces Day National Event 28th June.''Jimmy Skinner - Representative of Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders.

But this snap of the Queen’s Own Highlanders was taken in the real jungle of Brunei in 1962, and the action for the men on board the patrol boat, as it floated down the Belait river, was all too real.

One of those on board was 19-year-old Jimmy Skinner from Pilton, manning the gun to the rear, on the lookout for potential attack from anti-colonial insurgents who had launched an attack on Brunei, which was then still a British Protectorate. Now 72, his memories of time in the jungle of Borneo will play a part in this weekend’s Armed Forces Day, when veterans and ­serving men and women will congregate in Stirling to celebrate the history and work of the British military on land, sea and in the air.

“I’m always proud to represent my regiment,” he says. “I’ll be taking part in the ­parade then I’ll be speaking in a tent about Brunei in 1962, and the 8th of December.”

Jimmy had been a merchant seaman, serving on board a Royal Fleet auxilliary frigate refuelling Royal Navy ­vessels in Iceland during the Cod Wars, but he had quit his life at sea in December 1961, looking for more adventure.

“When I heard the Queen’s Own Highlanders were going to Singapore, I thought that’s for me, so I signed up,” he says. “That was in the March of 62. I was with 3 platoon, part of 8 company, and we were sent to Singapore to get our jungle training, then straight to Borneo after the insurgents had taken over.

“The photo was taken by an army photographer. I was a gunner, same as the chap at the front, but at the rear of the boat.”

It was the time of the Cold War and there were fears of a Communist takeover of Singapore.

Unrest in Brunei was growing as the people’s demands for democracy and independence from British involvement in the state grew, as well as their refusal to join the newly created Malaysia, clashed with the reigning ­Sultan’s wishes.

All had served to raise the prospect that ­communism could spread to Borneo and Brunei too.

By December 8, tensions were so high that a complete revolt broke out.

The rebels began co-
ordinated attacks on the oil town of Seria, targeting the Shell oil plant and attacking police ­stations and other ­government institutions.

The Sultan immediately ­invoked the protection of the British, and Gurkha soldiers flooded the country before the Highlanders arrived two days later.

“The Sultan was airlifted out the country but it was our job to try and recapture the palace,” recalls Jimmy. “The insurgents had taken over all the important buildings and the oil plants.

“I don’t remember being scared at any time, just aware that we were shooting at people who had no real chance.

“My commanding officer told me to open up my machine gun on a Land Rover which was driving along the road, but it was full of policemen – you could see their faces – I saw some tough things,” he breaks off.

“I suppose looking back there was a sense of excitement and of fear at the same time – until what you’re doing sinks in.

“We were lucky that we had some damned good NCOs (non-commissioned officers) who were really on the ball.”

The rebellion was over within a week.

The ill-equipped, badly led rebels were quickly crushed by the British troops.

Jimmy adds: “Despite what we were there for, I really liked being in the jungle, it was great.

“The only problem I ever had was with a bull leech which had gotten into my boot. I collapsed with the loss of blood because of it and my boot had to be cut off.

“What finished my career was all the sand when we were stationed in the Persian Gulf in ‘69.

“I went to Berlin after Borneo which was terrific.

“We were there to show the flag but we were absolutely surrounded and completely outnumbered. Our presence said to the Soviets ‘if you ­really want to take us on, then just come and try it’. Then we went to the Gulf. I hated the sand – and even though I live in ­Portobello now I never go near the beach,” he laughs.

Jimmy, who left the army after nine years of service, and some of the others in the photo, will be together at Armed Forces Day for the march. He believes that having a day to commemorate and ­celebrate the forces is important.

“There will be several of us marching. We show up to events like this for the sake of our comrades – the ones who gave their lives for us.

“Even when you are all back in Civvy Street you are still part of the community of service personnel,” he says.

Now a member of the Queen’s Own Highlanders and Malaya Brunei Borneo ­Veterans associations, Jimmy takes great pride in ensuring that the flag is still flown at important occasions. Whenever, and wherever, one of the association members dies, they ensure that they have a presence at the funeral to honour the lost comrade. Jimmy himself also worked in Edinburgh’s Poppy Factory, only retiring two years ago, and organised the Garden of Remembrance at the Scott Monument.

But he says, despite his years in the military, he wouldn’t recommend an ­infantry career to young men and women now.

“I don’t think Scotland needs an army, it’s been weeded down to one regiment. Perhaps just a rapid reactionary force, but times have changed so much now, I don’t think there’s a real need in Scotland anyway for a proper infantry.”

Some 1200 veterans of all ages, from their 80s to their 20s, are expected to take part in the Armed Forces Day parade alongside hundreds of serving personnel and cadets.

And Jimmy adds: “I’ll still be in Stirling to support my battalion and associations, that’s important, so the Queen’s Own Highlanders are not wiped from history.”

gina.davidson@edinburghnews.com