Fort Chabai airstrip reconstruction
By Richard Middleton
1 Troop Commander
Fort Chabai airstrip reconstruction
As part of the "taking the war to the CTs" strategy, a series of jungle forts had been established, serving as bases for Malay Police patrols. One of these forts, Chabai, had had trouble with landslides removing part of its airstrip, and without the airstrip troops and supplies could not easily be ferried in and out. Our job was to fix it (only when I was researching this note did I discover that the brigade’s heavy equipment sappers, 410 Plant Troop, RE, had previously been involved in this work for some time, and that we were taking over from them). When in February 1957 I flew in to Chabai with the 2nd in command, Phil Maclaughlin, for a reconnaissance the damage to the airstrip was very evident, but I failed to appreciate how much the Plant Troop had done: establish a borrow area on the hillside, from which we could haul fill material, and build a short retaining wall to try to prevent further slips. Unfortunately, having had another unit already engaged in design and implementation resulted in us going blindly ahead for a while before realizing that the site would not accommodate the planned amount of fill at the correct slope angle!
As usual, Sergeant Woods was well-informed and completely confident about our task, so we sat down together and planned the operation. The men would fly in from Butterworth in a series of Pioneer lifts. Some heavy equipment would have to come in by helicopter, but because Chabai was the other side of the main range that forms the spine of Malaya the helicopters would start from Gua Musang, a remote stop on the rail line to the east coast. In those days helicopters were small and their load-carrying capacity was limited, so while the engine and transmission for our little bulldozer would be lifted in, the heavy tracks and the rail components would be air-dropped. Altogether quite a complicated operation, and exciting to be involved in. Because of the high central range and the afternoon thunderstorms radio communication was sporadic at best, so we had to try to ensure that we thought it all out thoroughly beforehand.
We flew in in March 1957, and in the end it all went perfectly - more or less! We landed safely (a few weeks later a Pioneer lost power over the main range, and the pilot had to dive furiously to get the propeller spinning fast enough to jump start the engine again; luckily he succeeded, just before having to make a crash landing in the top of the jungle canopy, which would almost certainly have proved fatal, either on impact or after being stranded 200 feet up with no way of descent, as rescue harnesses had not yet been adopted). The chopper deliveries went without a hitch, which was another huge relief when serious storms could easily have disrupted everything, and the Gua Musang party came in on a last flight. Only the bulldozer tracks went astray: they were dropped short of the strip and landed in the jungle. I led a heroic effort up the bed of a little stream bed, the Sungei Kerchik, to recover them, fighting my way through tangles of downed bamboo and razor-sharp grass - only to find that the local aborigines, who of course knew the jungle like the backs of their hands, had reached them long before and taken them back to the fort!
These aborigines, the Sakai Temiar, were invaluable. They provided some of our labor force, earning $1 (Malay) per day worked, which I paid them at the end of the week using my rudimentary Malay, acted as guides for the police patrols, and, most importantly of all, formed a protective screen around the fort. Their villages were scattered over a wide area (it's a slash-and-burn existence, so villages move frequently) and any CT intrusion would have been reported to us immediately. They were scrupulously honest - they worked very hard to earn enough money (7 day's wages) to buy a new blade for a machete (parang) or axe (biliong), but we never lost anything through theft. The troops would have been extremely foolish to try to establish any sort of relationship with their women - apparently one of the fort commanders had tried that some time ago and was found dead, bristling with poison darts, in his tent (their blowpipes had a formidable range!).
After my troop has been pulled out and the Aussies took over some missionaries paid a visit. They offered the cute aborigine children candy (the children far preferred cigarettes), but anyway politely said "thank you" in the way they had been taught by the Aussies: "F**king roll on"! The missionaries left, with no noticeable converts.
With everything and everybody delivered safely, now we had to get set up. I learned a very valuable lesson from Sergeant Woods at this point: if you are going to be in one place for any length of time, even in the jungle, make it comfortable! This started with getting the men settled, where the aborigines were again invaluable. The security situation was a such that the police fort commander didn't see any reason to try to squeeze everyone inside the very small barbed wire perimeter of the fort, so they were going to be a few yards away, below the airstrip and nearer to the river. There was an enormous downed tree lying across the intended site, which was well-seasoned and very solid. Our axes made little impression, but the aborigines with their biliongs, wielded like woodpecker beaks, cut it up very quickly. Tents and rails were set up; bed frames constructed from
( It is of course entirely possible that this story was widely circulated and elaborated to make quite sure that the men behaved themselves! It may even have been apocryphal. But a dart can penetrate some way into hardwood, and the ipoh tree sap used as a toxin can definitely cause paralysis, so discretion was advisable)
bamboo and topped with heavy webbing (used to secure the parachute loads) to form what Indians call a charpoy; a big mess hall built of bamboo and atap; an oven made of a horizontal 40-gallon oil drum surrounded by rocks and mud; and we were nearly ready for business. Almost. The preceding police garrison had been all-Malay, and hadn't been very good at basic camp hygiene. They seemed to live on canned food, and empty cans had just been thrown outside the wire. The food scraps (largely squid) festered in the sun, and the entire place was buzzing with flies. If you put a mug of tea down for an instant, it filled with drowned flies. Absolutely horrible. We broke every environmental rule (not that they had been invented then), and ordered DDT foggers. For a few evenings we enveloped the entire camp area with dense fog, and after that there were no more flies. Inevitably their pit latrines were also pretty horrendous, but we cleaned them up and, as needed, dug new ones. There was only one unfortunate mishap. One of our over-zealous sappers thought that dropping one of our white phosphorus smoke grenades down a latrine would disinfect it. Well, it probably did, but the smoke particles are microscopic bits of phosphorus, which, especially in the presence of damp, remains unpleasantly corrosive for ages if not permanently - so anyone using that latrine acquired particles of phosphorus from the seat and was in extreme discomfort for a long time. We had to abandon it.
Sergeant Woods and I stayed inside the fort itself, sharing a spacious hut (bamboo frame, split bamboo walls, corrugated iron sheet roof) with the police commander, a veteran of the Palestine Police Force called "Buck" Rogers. We each had our own room with a charpoy for a bed. It was a comfortable place to live and we enjoyed a very friendly relationship, although I found myself buying numerous rounds of drinks because we played poker dice in the evenings and I was nothing like as good a liar as they were!
We didn't build showers in this camp, because we were next to a bend in the river, the Sungei Yai, where there was a deep pool, and in that climate a long swim or splash was perfect after a hard day's work. That same pool enabled us to have a plentiful supply of fish for the table: drop in a grenade, and grab the stunned fish as they floated to the surface. We wrestled with the big ones, which were huge, while the aborigines scooped up the smaller ones and stewed them in bamboo tubes over their fires. In this respect we were much luckier than the Aussies who followed us, because one of their sappers came down with what was diagnosed as Weil's Disease, which is typically spread by rat urine in damp environments such as river banks. They were ordered to stop swimming and build showers, a poor substitute.
If all this sounds idyllic, believe me, it was! However, full of myself for (as I thought) having managed a phenomenally successful mobilization, I was due for a comeuppance... I had completely overlooked the need for nails! We (or rather the aborigines) could do a great deal with rotan (in English, usually rattan): jungle vines split lengthwise to make very tough lashings. But some fastenings simply needed nails. We were not due for a supply drop for a week or so, and I could hardly request a Pioneer to come in with just a keg of nails, so the men set to removing all the nails from the wooden crates in which the supplies had been packed and, where necessary, straightening them for reuse. You could hear them hammering away on various improvised anvils, muttering (just loud enough to be audible but not enough to be a breach of discipline) "f**king orficers"!
That lesson was invaluable: for the rest of my life I have gone through any complicated procedure in my mind in as much detail as possible beforehand, trying to envisage anything that could possibly go wrong (and I found that on civil engineering projects it is often the apparently trivial details that lead to expensive problems later: failure to check line and level on a small concrete pour on a Friday night can afterwards result in massive cast iron pipes not aligning properly…).
All these domestic arrangements happened very quickly, thanks to Sergeant Woods and to Buck Rogers, who instructed the aborigines (their language is so difficult that he got a special bonus for knowing even a few words of it; most communication was in Malay). Now we had to turn our attention to getting the airstrip fixed.
The Chabai airstrip had been cut out of a hillside. It was tiny - perhaps 150 yards long and 50 wide. A small stream, the Sungei Kerchik, emerged from the jungle at the other end of the strip and ran parallel with it for much of its length. A much larger stream, the Sungei Yai, approached the strip from one side, was joined by the Sungei Kerchik, then turned away to form our large fishing pool. Over time a series of landslides had cut into the side of the strip, I suspect due to uncompacted material getting saturated by heavy rains, and erosion from the Sungei Kerchik carrying away anything that slid to the bottom of the slope. Our job was simple: take soil from the hillside above the strip and tip it into the landslide area and so build the strip up to its full width once more. Long before I arrived, it had been decided that this was best done by building a "Chinaman" (an elevated chute with a hopper discharging below) next to the hillside, lay a little mining railway around the strip perimeter ("Decauville track"), and move the soil using little mining skips. The bulldozer worked above the Chinaman to fill the chute, the men raked and shoveled the soil into the trucks, and then a little Ferguson farm tractor belonging to the fort hauled the train of skips round to the slide area. This proved surprisingly easy to set up, and worked pretty well, except on the occasions when the skips derailed and had to be manhandled back onto the rails, or the Ferguson broke down (it had lived in the jungle for some years and wasn't in the best of health).
I have no idea just how much we moved, but it seemed a huge amount. As the loose soil piled up, we had to bring the bulldozer off the side of the mountain and run it over the loose fill to compact it. As the fill began to take shape, it became clear that the original planning was very wrong: the toe of the reconstructed slope should have extended to the other side of the little stream, and would have been washed away by the first heavy storm. And we certainly didn't have the resources to install heavy rocks as rip-rap to prevent the reconstructed bank from eroding. So it was decided to build a massive sandbag wall along the existing stream edge, work to that to get the best slope we could, and compact everything very thoroughly (these days, knowing a little more about soil mechanics, I might attempt to analyze the situation more mathematically, but I think it was a very sound solution for a temporary airstrip that could never accept more than very small aircraft).
One thing that became clear early on was that I was essentially superfluous! I had to make sure that we reported progress, order supplies, and so on, but other than that it was just back-breaking work under the tropical sun and I wasn't anything like tough enough (I tried my hand working on the Chinaman for a while and ended up with massive blisters and aching all over; really all that I was doing was getting in the way). I think my most appreciated contribution was ensuring that any incoming Pioneer was carrying as much beer as was safe, and taking a lot of black-and-white photos for the men to send home. I did try to learn how to check out the bulldozer, but this was a bad mistake: the operator, one Lance-
( This is of course a euphemism! As with everything in Chabai, Sergeant Woods assessed the situation, drew up plans, tactfully told me what I had decided to do, and then did it! Without him I think I would have been completely lost, and I certainly would not have had the confidence to change my life around and become a civil engineer.
 For some reason the squadron did not nominate anyone to act as photographer, and after we left Chabai I had men from the Aussie troop, which relieved us, asking me for copies off my photos so that they could send them home.)
Corporal Ward (by far our heaviest consumer of beer - sitting behind a Diesel engine in full sun in the tropics is murderous) persuaded me to sign off on his inspection sheet, and I had endless trouble from the Aussies when they took over and shortly afterwards the bulldozer separated into its two constituent parts: its engine and transmission had come in separately, as they had to be manhandled, and Lance-Corporal Ward either hadn't tightened the bolts enough in the first place or had failed to make sure that they weren't loosening with the vibration...
In any event, I had a lot of time on my hands (and there wasn't any point in being "in the office" in case there was a radio message, because radio communication was poor at the best of times and non-existent most afternoons as the thunderstorms moved in. If you didn't feel like communicating with HQ, you could simply make hissing noises and say "Sorry, you are unreadable due to heavy interference" and hang up! Often the only reliable method we found was to use morse, and hope someone would pick up the message and relay it to the correct recipient.
So, in any free moments, I collected butterflies! Probably not a very military thing to do, but they were absolutely spectacular: masses of swallowtails collecting over the warm mud of the stream banks, or huge white ones, like the handkerchief ones in "Alice in Wonderland", floating through the rain forest. And this really was primeval rain forest; trees going up 200 feet or so, with massive buttress roots, making such dense cover that there was virtually no vegetation beneath them. I think I was immensely fortunate to have seen that before so much was ruthlessly cleared.
There was one of these huge rainforest trees in the middle of our camp, dead. Luckily it had not reached the point where it was liable to blow over, as it could have caused a lot of casualties, but in fact we did not suffer much from bad weather (which was just as well, as we would have been hopelessly delayed if we had had to deal with sticky wet laterite). I think the reason was probably that we were so close to the main range that we were completely in its rain shadow, and escaped the daily storms that we experienced on other jobs. I do however remember vividly one exceptionally intense storm, when the thunder and lightning seemed to be directly overhead. It culminated in what seemed to be a lightning bolt traveling horizontally up our valley - it crashed past overhead with a deafening roar, like being run over by an express train, and we waited apprehensively to be deluged with falling branches. To our immense relief, nothing happened.
My wanderings on the jungle paths in the vicinity of the camp inevitably led me to the various local aborigine long houses. I never went inside, which I felt would be over-stepping my welcome, but I was greeted on my walks (and eventually got two blowpipes made for me - for which Buck arranged the price, as anything which might be interpreted as taking advantage of the aborigines was distinctly frowned on. The long-jointed bamboo needed for blowpipes only grows at very high elevations, so it was quite a project to undertake). Obviously the aborigine "screen" around the camp ensured my safety, and it also gave me the confidence to try out my marksmanship without Buck dashing out to rescue me from a CT kidnapping attempt! Like many officers, I had abandoned the Smith & Wesson revolver with which we were issued, and selected my own sidearm from the many which the police had seized at the beginning of the Emergency. I had a Luger, which I loved, which had the great advantage that it took standard 9mm ammunition (of which we had masses, for our Sten guns). Also, being a weapon with a magazine and a spare clip, it provided considerably more firepower than the revolver. I never did get very proficient; I once severed a rotan vine at about 25 yards, but I think that was a pure fluke!
The aborigines knew that I was interested in nature, and this led to one bizarre incident. I was sitting in my office with Sergeant Woods, drafting the request for the next supply drop, when he suddenly evaporated. I looked towards the tent opening, and there stood a smiling aborigine holding out to me a bright green snake! The problem was that he naturally had his hands at each end, so there was no way I could easily accept it and retain full control. I had no idea if it was venomous or not, but I presumed that there were some snakes around (such as kraits) which could be lethal - and we were hardly within easy range of an emergency room. I did have a killing jar for the butterflies (a mason jar with a plaster of paris layer at the bottom impregnated with cyanide), but I still had to unscrew the lid, introduce the snake, and then let go of one end or the other and hope that I could get the lid back on in time. Somehow I did... I buried the snake hoping that the ants would reduce it to an elegant skeleton, but either they ate everything or something else did, because a few days later there was no trace of it. (The only other souvenir I have from the aborigines is a rhinoceros hornbill bill, now in my study, which one of the aborigines actually shot with one of my blowpipes.)
I think the greater danger in the jungle was not snakes but insects. Scorpions appeared frequently, and we had to be careful to check our jungle boots before putting them on in the morning (the Malay police would put scorpions in a ring of fire and then watch them either burn to death when trying to escape or fight each other to the death...). They were not maliciously aggressive, but you needed to be aware that they might be anywhere. Centipedes, also poisonous, were huge - I suspect more than 6 inches long, but my memory may be exaggerating. I know that on one of our first nights in camp some of the men put a centipede on the chest of their sleeping tent-mate, which resulted in a piercing scream when they kindly woke him up to point it out! But our most bizarre insect incident happened when we were unpacking the supplies from an airdrop. On one of the boxes of rations there was a most repulsive spider: green, hairy legs, perhaps 6 inches span, and with a red lining to its mouth (as far as I can recall - I only had a few moments to see the details). One of the men was carrying the box, when his friends pointed out that he had a passenger. He screamed, and hurled the box away - into the river. The spider, sensibly, abandoned the box, and landed on his chest! He ran off, shedding clothes (and, he hoped, the spider) en route to the river pool.
I mentioned our supply drops. These really were amazingly efficient. We had a supply of what would now be known as MREs, of course, in case bad weather grounded planes, but essentially we lived on "proper" food. I only recall one disaster, when a parachute failed to deploy and its load went into the ground at high speed. Normally this would not have mattered too much, as we would have salvaged what we could, but this particular load had been badly thought out - it contained not only our fresh meat but also Jeye's Fluid, a pungent disinfectant for the latrines...
There were some luxuries included in the drops. One, which I did not appreciate, was free cigarettes: one 50-cigarette can per man per week. Undoubtedly a plot by Players or Senior Service to get everyone addicted at an early age. Another, which I appreciated much more, was a large (gallon?) bottle of dark navy rum each week. This was wrapped in a wicker basket (rather like a Chianti flask), and was a great comfort for everyone. The only problem was that it had odd effects on our self-heating drinks: the rations included cans of soup and Ovaltine which, when you pulled the tab on top, had some sort of chemical reaction in an inner cylinder which brought the outer contents nearly to boiling point. However, if you added the rum to the Ovaltine it curdled, and the result was unappetizing both to look at and to drink!
I went on one day-long “patrol” with Buck Rogers, Sergeant Woods and a few of the men. This was really just a long walk with few military objectives, but Buck wanted to check up on a Chinese tin miner who lived a few valleys away. From the maps it appeared easy, but, as we were to learn, the maps were completely misleading! They were based on relatively few aerial photo surveys (many done, I suspect, before WWII), and, except for priority areas such as towns, each area had been surveyed only once. So, given
climate, large areas of the maps were blank, labeled “Obscured by cloud”! They were also insufficiently detailed to
tell us much about the route we about to take.
Worst of all, given the extreme difficulty of carrying out surveys to
“ground truth” the maps, many errors went undetected. The most egregious error was that, in
severely eroded terrain covered by rain forest, the top of the jungle canopy
bears little relationship to the contours below! Trees at the bottom of what we might call a
canyon grow very much higher in their struggle to reach the light (they probably
also have access to much more soil and water), so the aerial survey depicts a
gently undulating canopy (and, by inference, gently undulating terrain) when
the reality is a series of nearly precipitous hillsides!
That was a hard day’s walk. Endless scrambling up slippery slopes, and sliding down the other side, careful not to grab hold of grass that would slice your hands open, or to brush against vegetation that might allow leeches to latch on to you and hide in your clothing (to be dislodged at the end of the day, grossly swollen with blood, by carefully applying lighted cigarettes). Leeches seemed to be everywhere, which makes no sense in jungle where their targets, warm-blooded animals, would have been extraordinarily rare. Still, it seemed they’d found their environmental niche and were content…
The Chinaman, when we eventually reached him, turned out to live about as basic an existence as one could imagine. He had formed a small clearing on the side of the hill, not far above a stream, and built a basic bamboo and atap hut. He made his livelihood by panning for tin ore, which apparently was very easy in such a remote location. The storms over the central range eroded the tin deposits and transported them down the rivers, where they naturally separated out over the years, so really he was not so much panning as excavating (he also did some hydraulic excavation in certain areas). Every so often he would load his bags of ore onto a raft made of bamboos lashed together with rotan, float down the river (towards the east coast, where there wasn’t much of anything), sell it, stock up with supplies, and then walk back up the river. Probably at least a week’s walk! No one bothered him - especially during the Emergency, no one wanted to live in such a remote area. He seemed perfectly content, not even lonely.
Up to that point in my life my exposure to coffee had been mainly Nescafe (the original powder; freeze-dried was still some years off) and occasional percolated real coffee. The Chinaman introduced me to his variant on Turkish coffee: equal parts coffee and sugar, and not too much hot water (I later realized that Buck Rogers almost certainly provided the ingredients; it would have been unthinkable for half a dozen people to arrive and expect to share his limited supplies). That acted like a shot of pure adrenaline: the journey back seemed half the distance of the outward one!
We all managed to keep reasonably healthy, fortunately. There must have been some deficiencies in our diet, because, no matter how often one showered or swam, after a while one got “jungle sores” - open sores which refused to heal and which left scars (the scars on my shoulders didn’t disappear until quite recently). I gave myself permission to grow a beard, because I seemed to be the only person with sores on the face. I was also, as far as I know, the only person who developed dental cavities; when I got back to base and had a checkup, I had quite a few, which were treated by the dentist attached, I think, to RAF Butterworth. He was an Aussie, but originally from
his equipment was an ancient treadle-operated dental drill. He didn’t believe in anaesthetics - he
said he liked to know where the bad bits of the tooth were! - so
my sessions with him were agonizing, but I think he was good at what he
Of course, we were all taking a lot of exercise. The men’s work - pulling soil down the Chinaman, shoving mining skips, or filling sandbags - was very demanding, but even so we had enough energy in the evenings to play badminton against the police. In my ignorance I wondered why we kept losing, until later I learned that
Malaya dominated the world of badminton, and that some of
the police had not only represented their state, Kelantan, but had also tried
out for the Olympic team! (Later, when
we were in Naka, I ran the squadron badminton team and we actually did quite
well against local teams, so my hard-earned experience in Chabai had some
We were about 2 months in Chabai before we were pulled out, in May 1957. I had to leave someone there to look after our equipment before the Aussies could come in and take over, and selected a young Welshman called Jones, whose army numbers ended in 4444. - so of course he was known as "Jones All Fours". I think his case is a good illustration of the way in which National Service could transform people's lives: imagine growing up in a Welsh mining village and then finding yourself in the middle of dense jungle, responsible for a lot of equipment, with no one else who even speaks English too well - let alone Welsh!
I say there was no one else speaking English because Jones was the only sapper there. In any case, by that time Buck had moved on and been replaced by a Malay police inspector, who at first was a pain in the neck. He announced that he was horrified that we had been eating bacon in their fort, and he would have to carry out a ritual purification - which involved something like washing everything down twice with mud... Buck was still there then, handing over, and we told the new inspector (Yunid) that we outnumbered him three to one, and if he was so bothered about our diet he was very welcome to camp outside the wire... We heard no more complaints (but of course were careful to respect his religious observances, and didn't eat bacon at the meals we shared with him).