By Richard Middleton
11 Indep Fd Sqn 1957.
My experience on this road ran from August 1957, shortly after the squadron began the project, to November 1957.  When we began, there was a tarmac road running eastward for about 20 miles from Alor Star to Nami, where it degenerated into a narrow jungle trail.  The next village along the trail was Nami, and our job was to construct a laterite road between Naka and Nami.

I think it’s worth a digression into the nature of laterite.  The technical literature will go into endless detail about the different rocks from which can be formed, the minerals that can be extracted from it, and its potential uses.  But the main thing as far as we were concerned was that it was a clay-like material derived from millennia of weathering of rock under tropical conditions, and that, while it was superb road-building material when dry, it became a tenacious and treacherous[1] glue when wet.  On a dry day the Landrover filled with red dust;  on a wet day it was prone to sliding off the road and having to wait for something with tracks to extricate it.

One consequence of this was that rain caused all work on the road to stop, otherwise deep squishy ruts developed that were very hard to cure[2].  As there is no fixed rainy season in Malaya  -  heavy storms can occur on almost any afternoon  -  that meant a lot of vigilance and strict discipline to ensure that work parties were clear of vulnerable areas ahead of rain.  I derived great pleasure from walking the road at those times, clearing drainage pathways and ensuring that runoff did not accumulate (you can attribute this to small boy games or as presaging my future career as a water engineer…).  It also provided an opportunity for revenge on two visiting “desk warriors” from Singapore (they liked visiting, as once they crossed the Causeway they were entitled to campaign medals…).  We told them, truthfully, that they could only navigate the furthest section of the trail using bicycles, so they set off in the morning in high spirits  -  only to return in the evening as two shapeless blobs of clay, lugging two equally shapeless blobs which had once been bicycles!

[1]  “Treacherous” may seem an odd word to apply to an innocent form of soil.  But after I graduated and started work as a civil engineer, the consulting firm where I worked developed a considerable practice advising on building stability in Hong Kong.  The skyscrapers there were built on granite  -  supposedly.  However, in some places parts of the granite had degenerated into laterite, and under the climatic conditions in Hong Kong this was completely unsuitable as foundation material:  the buildings slid down the hillside and eventually fell over (usually with minimal loss of life, as the process occurred slowly  -  but relentlessly).
[2] That’s characteristic of many clays:  they change from hard to plastic with only a small change in moisture content.  So mixing in rainwater, for example by driving a vehicle over them, just worsens the problem.  When I lived in Virginia I watched a large pothole on a major road persist over many years because the clay underneath had became overly wet, and no matter how much tarmac was put on top, the foundation never dried out enough to carry a load!

I wasn’t there when the road was completed, but I still wonder how long it survived once it was handed over to the civil authorities.  It would not have taken much undisciplined civilian traffic (presumably heavily over-laden trucks, as in most of Asia) to cause considerable damage, and require careful frequent maintenance[1].
I’m not now certain what the ultimate objective of the road was.  It was very close to the border with Thailand, and we were told that it was needed to prevent CT infiltration of men and supplies from that country.  However, I believe that, at that point in the Emergency, infiltration was minimal, so it is quite probable that it was essentially a pre-Merdeka “hearts and minds” project to improve access to Nami and even more remote villages (in “the ulu”).  Up to then the only means of transport to Nami (other than humans) was a regular elephant service.  That continued, using the new sections of road as they became available, but it turned out that the elephant did not like the new concrete bridges  -  it arrived at one embankment, contemplated the bridge, then cut off to one side through the jungle and across the stream, scraping off its mahout and dislodging its howdah!

I said that I believed that CT activity in the area was minimal.  That certainly was my impression from the way in which we worked.  We carried weapons, of course, but did not have any screening patrols to check the area, and were in scattered work parties that would have been ridiculously easy prey for any competent CT unit (we even let the “desk warriors” go swanning around on bicycles, although we would probably not have mourned their loss too much, apart from the consequent paperwork).  I was told that Malay Engineer units engaged in similar work further south had been attacked and suffered casualties;  I don’t know why we were spared.

The move to Nami was a major deployment from our Butterworth base.  In fact, there were even more of us than at Butterworth, as we also had our plant troop, which I think may have been based at brigade HQ at Taiping (I’m sure someone will remember).  That added Captain “Robbie” Robinson and 2nd Lieutenant David Spedding to the officers’ mess.  Robbie had worked as a roads engineer with Gloucester County Council, I believe, and had valuable experience and a complete intolerance for BS[2], and David had been with John Laing before

[1] In later life I spent a lot of time in Namibia, where most of the roads are dirt.  The climate there is ideal  -  almost desert over most of the country  -  and the roads are very wide, so that lane ruts do not form, but even so the state has a fleet of graders that do nothing except drive continuously from one end of a major road and back again, keeping them in excellent condition.
[2] He was also somewhat mischievous.  The story was that, ordered to drive pile foundations in what he thought was an unsuitable site, he located a former Japanese barracks buried by subsequent earth-moving, and set up the pile-driver there.  When the pile reached the concrete barracks foundation it naturally exploded.  As did the second…  The powers that be reluctantly agreed that it was not a suitable site for piled foundations!  Although there may also have been some problems with local pile manufacture:  we had several piles explode when we were constructing the road bridges, which was a nuisance as they then had to be extracted and replaced.

being conscripted.  For the first time we had a large plant yard, with, as far as I can remember, graders, scrapers, face shovels (which could be converted into cranes or draglines) and bulldozers.  Of course in those days face shovels were cable-operated, not hydraulic, and relied on masses of “black jack” grease to operate smoothly.  I remember a competition in which a matchbox was stood on end on an oil drum, and operators competed to see who could lower the bucket onto the matchbox without crushing it!  That would be an achievement even with today’s equipment.  The face shovels were all Ruston Bucyrus (RBs) and we soon learned what it meant when we were told that the excavating equipment for a task was an RB-1: a sapper with a shovel!

The plant yard was the scene of one of my few encounters with wildlife in Malaya (the jungle always seemed oddly devoid of wildlife, apart from the magnificent butterflies and the menacing scorpions).  One night, when I was orderly officer, I was checking on our sentries when we saw a large silhouette on a crane jib  -  a black panther!  After a quick conference we decided that it seemed harmless, that the patrol should be adjusted to steer well clear of it, and that any CTs trying to infiltrate to sabotage the equipment were welcome to try their luck!

At the time of the initial move to Naka I was on Penang Island at the time (disposing of Japanese munitions;  see my separate note), but my troop sergeant, Sergeant Woods, was involved (I sorely lacked his experience on the bomb disposal. But he had been acting troop commander on another road project, the Kemayan road  -  something that, with typical tact, he never mentioned to me  -  and was needed at Naka).  We had a very pleasant camp on the edge of the village (tents EPIP, with high rails all around to let in the air), with a good flat parade ground that doubled as a sports field.  It was a really good base, and I think everyone enjoyed their stay there.
 Of course, there was no off-base entertainment, and so, as junior subaltern, I found myself in charge of sports.  The local sports were badminton and field hockey, and we had wonderful matches with teams from Alor Star.  Badminton was a national passion (it wasn’t yet included in the Olympics;  if it had been, I think Malaya would have swept the board), but we had been playing against the Malay Police in Fort Chabai and had learned a trick or two (I think some of the police had been state champions or close to it).  Field hockey was another sport which the British introduced to Asia and which was overwhelmingly popular.  What was new, to anyone brought up on soggy English grass, was playing on laterite:  about as yielding as concrete, and the ball travelled at a phenomenal speed.  The locals were used to this, and had superb stickwork and ball control (I remember in particular the Young Sikhs, playing in turbans and utterly merciless!).  My secret weapon in field hockey was our Second-in-command, James Polley.  James had never played hockey before, but he was a serious golfer (I think he may have played for the Corps?), and I recruited him as right winger.  His job was to get the ball, run fast to the furthest right corner of the field, and then center it to the back of the circle.  That ball, travelling just above the ground at near-sonic velocity, was a winner!

I believe that this interaction with the local communities was important, although I did not think much about it at the time.  Now I think about our sports matches, and how they were echoed by the British troops playing soccer in Basra during the Iraq war -  in striking contrast to the US troops bursting into Muslim women’s quarters at 2 a.m., dressed in Star Wars space gear…  I remember driving through Malay kampongs and the children tossing rambutans up to us  -  fresh off the tree and delicious! 

On my walks along the road to inspect the drainage I also got to know some of the farmers and children by sight, and on one occasion had to help one farmer who had been injured:  he had been gored in the side of his hip by a water buffalo tossing its head, and needed more medical attention than we could provide.  We patched him up as best we could and then I sent him by Landrover to the hospital in Alor Star.  I’ve no idea who paid for the treatment, but he recovered, and the village seemed pleased:  I was wandering around one evening and heard music, and found an atap hut where some of the older men were instructing young boys on the intricate positions in Thai dances.  I was invited to sit at the back and participate in the percussion section of the orchestra, striking two bamboo tubes together! (I have no musical talents and the experience was not repeated!)  At another time I was able to walk alongside the sled carrying priests and other dignitaries in the harvest festival, apparently without anyone taking any notice of an obvious foreigner (in uniform) with a camera.

This interaction with the community also extended to semi-official visits.  One was by the chief of police, who arranged for the police band to beat retreat on our parade ground.  This went off very well, but the preparations involved one complication  -  we did not have a ladies’ latrine, and of course some of the senior police officials were bringing their wives.  So every day after our first parade Sapper Hanlon of 2 Troop (the Australian troop) would fall out and go off to dig a new latrine for our expected guests.  This is where the story may get a little apocryphal, but if it isn’t true it ought to be!.  It is said that Sapper Hanlon laid a pipe leading from the “thunderbox” away to a bush which provided ample concealment.  On the great day, he waited until the wife of the police chief entered the latrine, allowed sufficient time for her to extricate herself from 6 metres of sari, and then announced up the tube “Excuse me, ma’am, but I ain’t quite finished yet”.  Somewhat of a diplomatic incident, eventually resolved with no ill-feeling  -  and endless jankers for Hanlon.  But, as I said, it may all be a myth…

We did have more formal visits that didn’t need extraordinary preparations.  One such was from our brigadier, Brigadier Moore, who was himself a sapper.  For some reason it was decided that he should be entertained at a picnic lunch to be arranged at the then road head, and of course it fell to me, as junior subaltern, to organize it. Which I did, brilliantly, as I thought  -  until it turned out that the butter was nowhere to be seen.  Nothing to do except fetch it from camp several miles away, so a Dingo scout car was dispatched to get some as fast as possible.  It was unfortunate that my instructions were to get butter, not to get butter and pack it in ice…  Dingos get unbearably hot in a few minutes at mid-day.  That foray was not a great success.

The construction itself was not complicated in an engineering sense, but as many of us (especially me) were new to it there was a lot of learning on the job.  The sequence was simple:  set out the alignment and levels;  clear jungle and scrub with bulldozers;  lay out the basic road, borrow pits, working areas, etc.;  put Bailey bridges across major streams;  lay concrete pipe culverts to carry minor stream under the road;  build the permanent concrete bridges over the major streams;  and lastly establish final grades and drainage.  On this first section of road there were three major streams, to be spanned by bridges made of prestressed concrete beams supported by piled foundations.  The first of these, very near the camp, was called Dors Bridge, the second, a few miles up the road, Mansfield Bridge, and the last, farther yet, Merdeka Bridge.  By the time my troop arrived the Bailey bridge at the Dors site was already in place, for the surveyors to set out the road and to allow the bulldozers to get on with easement clearance, so I was given responsibility for the Dors concrete bridge, the Bailey bridges at Mansfield and Merdeka, and some concrete culverts (I think between Dors and Mansfield).  Number 2 troop, the Australians, were given the Mansfield concrete bridge and some culverts beyond that.  Strangely enough, I cannot remember exactly what Number 3 troop, Alec Jackson’s were doing, but it seems likely that they were handling the concrete bridge at Merdeka and the culverts beyond Mansfield;  perhaps someone else with a better memory can sort this out.

At one stage in my later career I was responsible for the design and construction of reinforced concrete structures, and in retrospect all I can say is that thank heavens Robbie and David Spedding knew what they were doing!  They were responsible for setting out;  sampling borrow pits;  carrying out Mackintosh probe tests to determine foundation conditions;  checking that the stone crushing plant was producing properly-graded aggregate;  deciding on water:cement ratios;  satisfying themselves that the final product met specifications;  and so on and so on.  All we had to do was follow instructions carefully (and as I had never even seen a surveyor’s level up to that point  -  I was still in the boning rod age  -  it was something of a miracle that everything ended up structurally sound and more or less in the right place;  as usual, the credit belongs to Sergeant Woods rather than to me). 
We only had one major scare.  The streams we were bridging were trivial  -  one could easily jump across them  -  until one day we had a cloudburst that lasted all afternoon and much of the night.  The next morning we came out to find a large lake!  The partly-constructed bridge was almost under water, and the concrete mixer was also inundated.  Luckily the water level receded almost as fast as it had risen, and we got everything going again with minimal delays.  But if any major tree trunks had come down with the flood we would almost certainly have lost the Bailey bridge, and possibly some of the just-poured concrete.

One lesson I learned from the flood was how to get the squadron properly equipped.  It was amazing how the flood managed to selectively wash away a number of things that we needed, such as prismatic compasses, which were naturally too small to be detected in the tangled jungle detritus downstream…  My respect for Q’s creativity increased considerably![1]

I may have given the impression that this was somewhat of an amateur operation.  I think it’s true that some of us were amateurs, at least at the beginning.  But I think we learned fast (thank heavens for NCOs!), worked very hard, and the result was excellent.  Not that Major Bill would have accepted anything less.  One day two sappers pouring concrete in a culvert headwall did not clean out the drum of the mixer properly, so that next day some concrete was stuck inside.  I didn’t notice, but Major Bill did.  He had them inside the drum, chipping the concrete out, until it was spotless.  It didn’t happen again.  And perhaps that sort of experience was one of the major benefits of National Service in the sappers:  young men who in civil life had not learned a trade ended up driving, welding, fixing reinforcement, placing and finishing concrete, and doing the myriad other things that have to be done well if everything is going to fall into place. 

In my own case I think I stopped being such a nerd  -  educated but with no useful skills!  I was demobbed in February 1958 and that September went to Oxford University on a chemistry scholarship.  In 1959, my first summer vacation, I travelled to Canada, but couldn’t find a job until I went up to the uranium mines near Elliot Lake in northern Ontario (at that time very far from civilization:  north of us there was nothing much until one reached the North Pole).  There I was hired to wash dishes…  I remarked (loud enough for the right people to hear) that it seemed to me very odd to be using a sapper officer who had just been building roads in Malaya to wash dishes in a road construction camp  -  and next day was driving a pickup truck and running a survey crew, never having washed a dish!  When I returned to Oxford I managed to change my scholarship from chemistry to civil engineering, which determined the course of the rest of my life. 

[1]   We were ourselves the victims of the ingenuity of the quartermaster’s branch when working on the Chabai airstrip.  I asked for more shovels to be dropped to us, as we kept breaking them, and received a generous consignment  -  of WWII Japanese equipment!  They were about the size of entrenching tools, ancient and worm-eaten, and utterly useless.  But because they were written off as expendable once air-dropped, somewhere there was a happy Q building up his reserves!

1 comment:

  1. I very much enjoyed Richard Middleton's account of the Naka Nami project. Some great images of the dozers, scrapers and piling rigs in action. priceless memories. My links to 11 Sqn were much later when I was in Thailand on the airstrip and road projects as a plant operator with 54 Sqn. Thankyou. Mick Norton


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