In the excitement of going on active service the 3rd Battalion overlooked some basic, practical precautions. They had, in fact, been told what to expect by Brigadier Glennie (Deputy Director of Operations) himself. An enthusiastic yachtsman, Glennie took a particular interest in the maze of creeks and rivers that ran through the swamps along the Tawau coastline and had himself set about organizing a flotilla of small patrol craft that came to be known rather grandly as the Tawau Squadron. He studied the particular problems of this end of the Borneo flank and decided that an attack was to be expected.
Tawau was almost as tempting a target as Kuching. It was prosperous centre for many rural industries-timber, rubber, tea, cocoa, hemp and palm oil-and three-fifths of the population were Indonesian immigrant workers and their families. The port itself stood on the northern shore of Cowie Harbour, and across the bay lay Sebatik Island, some thirty miles long, of which half belonged to Malaysia, half to Indonesia. On Sebatik and along the frontier the Indonesians had deployed five companies of regular marines-the Korps Komando Operasi or KKO- and a training camp for volunteer terrorists, some of them from the logging camps of Sabah.
The 3rd Battalion, Royal Malay Regiment, together with a company of the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry and some local gendarmerie were responsible for the defence of Tawau and its environs and Glennie told them to expect an attack. Despite the presence of the Indonesian marines he did not expect this to come by sea, if only because the Royal Navy always kept a frigate or destroyer off Tawau and an efficient radar watch was maintained. But he did think that the attack would come through the swamps and he advised the newly-arrived Malays to prepare for it with patrolling and a defence system in depth.
They had not acted on Glennie’s advice when a strong force of raiders-thirty five Indonesian regulars leading one hundred and twenty –eight volunteers –crossed the border. Their intention was first to capture the defended village of Kalabakan to the west of Tawau and at the head of Cowie Harbour
, then, as the Indonesian expatriates rose to support them, advance on Tawau itself. After crossing into Sabah, the raiders lurked undetected in the swamps and forests for eight days, then on 29th December were ready to launch their attack.
There were two defensive positions at Kalabakan. On the bank of the river running into Cowie Harbour stood the police station, fortified with sandbags and barbed wire and manned by fifteen policemen. Four hundred yards away, a platoon and two sections of the Royal Malay Regiment, under their Company Commander occupied two huts. Although trenches had been dug nearby, the huts themselves were not fortified in any way. After dark that evening, the unsuspecting Malay soldiers were engaged in domestic activities, washing and cleaning clothes and equipment. Their sentries were not alert.
At two o’clock in the morning Walker’s telephone rang and the duty officer at his headquarters told him that Kalabakan had been attacked and had fallen. The attack had been launched just before eleven o’clock. An assault group had crept up to the Malays, flung grenades through the windows and opened automatic fire. Before the Malays could reach their weapons, eight had been killed, including the company commander, and nineteen wounded. Tem minutes later, another party had assaulted the police station but the small garrison had had time to rush inside their perimeter and successfully fought off the attack. In the timber company manager’s house they helped themselves to his whisky, while his wife and their cook hid under the bed. The manager himself, out at a logging camp, made for the Malays’ strongpoint. Reaching the survivors, he told them that this was the moment to counter-attack and he would join them himself. But, shocked into inaction, they stayed where they were.
The Indonesians moved out of the village but, content with their success, did not move directly upon Tawau, where they might have been able to repeat it. Instead, they traveled north to lie low in the wilds where they believed they would be safe.
Next morning Walker flew to Tawau. On arrival Walker sent a signal asking for urgent reinforcements and, at once, the 1/10th Gurkhas who had already served in Sarawak, began returning from Malacca. But Walker also heard that the news had been reported to the Tunku Abdul Rahman verbally and, to spare his feelings, the signal giving details of the action had been kept from him. On hearing of the disaster he had at once announced his intention of flying to Sabah to visit the survivors of the first battle fought directly between Malaysia and Indonesia.
Walker flew to Jesselton-the capital of Sabah, now to be renamed Kota Kinabalu-to meet him and was relieved when Fenner (Inspector General of Police Claude Fenner) arrived by an earlier aircraft. Walker told him that the inexperienced Malay soldiers had been ‘caught with their trousers down’. This often happened under such circumstances and was a lesson to be learned. He intended to tell the Tunku exactly what had happened. The Inspector General of Police Claude Fenner strongly advised him not to do so. Whether or not British troops had suffered similar disasters in war, the Tunku would never accept or believe that his soldiers had been caught by surprise and defeated. Walker realizing that Fenner knew the Tunku better than he did, agreed.
When the Tunku arrived, Walker told him the story of the action in diplomatic language. The Indonesians had approached with great skill, using the cover of Kalabakan, so enabling them to rush the Malay position in overwhelming numbers. This was both true and tactful. The Tunku was immensely moved and, on arrival at Tawau, tearfully greeted his wounded soldiers, gave each a handsome cash bounty and decreed that a monument should be erected at Kalabakan to the dead.
Reference:Extracts from, "Fighting General. The Public and Private Campaigns of General Sir Walter Walker". Author : Tom PocockLibrary MindefBuy here.