The Ambush, 26th March 1972
The bitterness is still in the mouth and the pain deep in our hearts. Fifty years have passed, the lives lost should not be lost in vain.
It was that un-fateful day on 26th March 1972, that an admin convoy from 7th Rangers, comprising an assorted group of ‘bottle washers’ was ambushed by a group of about 30 - 40 Communist Terrorists (CTs) along the Lundu-Biawak road. At that time, 7th Ranger’s main fighting force was operating in the Serian area in a special operation under 3rd Malaysian Infantry Brigade, Kuching, Sarawak. In the ambush, 15 soldiers were killed, 4 were wounded and the CT group captured a number of weapons and a TRA 906 radio set.
As this news dawned upon the unit’s fighting echelons in Serian, blood boiled past threshold levels. Having lost 15 of our soldiers there was little we could do from Serian, some 150km away from Lundu where 7th Rangers was stationed. Under our breaths we wowed revenge. Operation BELA was launched.
Redeployment, 27th March 1972
In the early hours of 27th March, we redeployed directly into our redesigned Area of Operations (AO). A Company (A Coy) was flown from a landing point (LP) at ferry point (intersection of road Lundu-Bau/Sg Stamin) and off loaded into the swampy area of Kg Mengkudu, some 10kms south of the ambush site. We spent the next 3 weeks searching with no joy. We were too far south. My platoon (No 3 Pl) was in a bad shape – fatigued and badly in need for some fresh cloths. I had returned the previous day from my Company Support Weapons course at PULADA, to be confronted with this tragedy. My Officer in Command (OC), Capt Sabdin Ghani, was on course in Australia. The company was commanded by the Company Second in Command (Coy 2IC), Lt Abdullah Hj Yusuf, a joyful officer but at this time there were no smiles, instead I could see he was breathing fire.
FIRST STRIKE, LT ABDULLAH HJ YUSOF, OPENING ACCOUNTS!
Rest & Replenishment, 15th April to 18th April 1972
On 15th April, A Coy was withdrawn to Tac Hq, at Lundu for some rest and replenishment. I was quick to get my boys their clothing exchanged, cleaned up weapons, ammunitions and conducted a hygiene inspection of the platoon. We caught up with some rest and I took some time to orientate myself to our unit’s AO. There was always a lot of activity going on in the operations room (Ops Room) and I guessed it was on enemy assessments and where we would be redeployed after our short rest.
There was also some time to catch up with the other officers in the unit. Generally, there was a gloom hanging over our heads. A major strike was needed to change this.
CT Signs Emerge, 18th April 1972
On the 18th April, at about 1500hrs, I was informed that a border scout had brought some “information”. We needed that! Lt Abdullah was called up to the Ops Room and when he returned, he called the Coy’s Orders group: “This morning (18th April) a CT group made inquiries about crossing Sg Stamin at a jungle fringe at Kg Perian (about 20 kms south of Lundu). They were dressed in green and carried weapons. It is assessed this group intends to cross Sg Stamin and head to Bau using the track leading to the Lundu-Bau road. Coy Hq and No 2 Pl will investigate this. When we make contact, Baldev, you will do the follow up. Be ready to move from here (Tac Hq)”. I was ready.
The Move Out
At 1800hrs, A Coy Hq and No 2 Pl moved out on 1 x Land Rover and 2 x 3-ton trucks: WO2 Abdul Rahman, also known as ‘Rahman Harimau’, the Company Sargeant Major (CSM) instructed the group “masa kita keluar kem, jangan pandang balik!” Whatever meaning it carried I took it was for good. I bided the group luck and saw them leave Lundu camp. They crossed the ferry point at Sg Stamin and debussed some 8 kms up road at a track junction branching off the Lundu – Bau road to Kg Perian. I geared up my platoon and waited for developments.
Under the moonlight Abdullah’s group moved silently along the track towards Kg Perian/Sg Stamin. At around midnight Lt Abdullah decided to stop and continue the move at first light. He set out a linear ambush along the track and carefully laid 2 claymore mines covering the killing area – the track towards the river. Once set, the group waited. The moonlight was bright enough to watch the front.
The Ambush is Sprung
About 30 mins later, four (4) figures (dark shadows) appeared walking slowly along the track heading towards the road junction. The figures suddenly stopped in the killing area. They must have sensed something unusual. The lead figure stamped his foot 4 times on the ground and the figures started moving backwards. Abdullah sprung the ambush igniting the claymore mines. This was followed by a brief fire fight before the peace of the night returned amidst the strong smell of gunpowder. Then it was a long wait to dawn as the ‘fogs of war’ crept it.
Abdullah reported the contact by morse code as there was heavy atmospheric interreference. I alerted my platoon and moved to the Communications Centre and kept myself updated on the situation. Details were sketchy but sufficient for my deployment. By 0600hrs my platoon crossed the ferry point and we deployed to the north of the contact site.
2 CTs Killed, TRA 906 Recovered!
At first light, Abdullah searched and mopped up the killing area. One CT lay dead close to the killing area and another was found a short distant away.
Abdullah reported the findings: “2 CTs KIA!” That was great, we got them! A short while later Abdullah reported the finding of 2 weapons and 4 packs.
A search of the packs was made. To our joy Abdullah found the radio set we lost in the ambush of 26th March 1972. It was neatly packed in one of the packs.
He reported: “We have recovered our TRA 906 radio set!”
At that moment, a voice rang out on the other side: “Golf Oscar Charlie speaking, confirm that you have recovered the lost radio set?”
Abdullah: “Yes! Confirmed it our radio set!”
The voice: “Well done! Keep it up!”
That was all we need, a good result. That day, 19th April 1972, our revenge began! These kills also marked the first operational success for of 7th Rangers since formation. There was great joy especially on hearing the recovery of our radio set. This was a morale booster: the gloom was lifted! The unit’s battle account was opened and we needed to put in more credit into the account.
In the follow up operation, we found heavy blood trails and bits of human flesh scattered along the track to Sg Stamin where the trails were lost. It appeared another CT was severely wounded. It was later confirmed through other contacts, that the blood trail was that of another wounded CT who succumbed to the wounds. The information was decoded from letters captured during contacts elsewhere.
Charlie Company Scored Too, May/June 1972
The following months were spent on search and destroy just waiting to make the next contact. There were strikes by Charlie Company under Capt Ropee Adnan and Lt Zulkifly Abdul Rahman (late). Two CTs were KIA in the Titiakar area, about 15 kms away from Lundu in May/June 1972. In this contact again, atmospheric interference was heavy and communications difficult. I was deployed to set up a rebro station midway to relay results and instructions.
SECOND CONTACT, CAPT SABDIN GHANI, VALOUR DISPLAYED!!
More Information Surfaces, 24th July 1972
During our next standby at the Tac Hq, there was a similar report to that of our first contact in April. This time my OC, Capt Sabdin Ghani was back in command.
At about 1600hrs on 24th July 1972, Capt Sabdin was called to the Ops Room by the Commanding Officer (CO), Lt Col Hussein Ali Piah. In the Op Room, the unit IO, Lt Dan Yunan and a scruffy looking border scout were waiting. Behind the scruffy looks, the information we needed was splashed: a CT group had been conducting regular visits to an outlaying hut/house (isolated) in Kg Kabong, about 10 kms east of Kg Selampit, a village located along Sungai Stamin, some 50 kms south of Lundu. The group usually stayed long hours till midnight and had been coming almost every night. That was all Capt Sabdin wanted. If this border scout travelled some 60 kms to pass this information, then there was high chance it to be true and an opportunity to be exploited.
After some detailed discussions, Capt Sabdin returned to the Coy lines. It looked like he had a plan worked out in his head.
“We are going to get this group!”
Capt Sabdin called his Orders Group, selected his light strike team and tasked me as the standby again for follow up. His orders were brief and to the point: “We are going to get this group! Baldev, you will be on standby here at Tac Hq. You move immediately when we make contact”. Capt Sabdin had a style of delivering his orders – short, sharp and he had a very menacing look on his face. I noticed how he gritted his teeth. I saw determination on his face, it inspired me.
Preamble – I Report to 7th Rangers, April 1971
I commissioned on 16th April 1971 at the Royal Military College (RMC), Sg Besi or Iron River as many of us referred it to. I was the lone ranger to report to 7th Rangers at Tac Hq in Kelian Intan, Kroh, Perak. The unit was then on Ops Kota. After a brief orientation to the unit, thanks to the noisy group: the Adjutant, Capt Norman Sta Maria (late), the IO, Capt Soman Selvaraj (late) and our Regimental Medical Officer Capt Dr Yong (Uncle ‘Fangs’- big eater!), I was set to move on. The orientation included initiation of the ‘Rainbow Special’, seven “assorted drinks” to signify 7th Rangers, to be downed in one go at the mess: I do not know how but I did it! Capt Ropee Adnan, the OC of C Coy, had me disappear from the mess during the 2 nights at Tac Hq, into the bunker beside the mess. It was very cold at night and the mess staff were kind to throw me some blankets. Some orientation it was, whatever was thrown at me I took it! But I looked forward to joining the subunit I was meant to be in.
The CO, Lt Col Hussein Ali Piah after welcoming me said: “You will join A Coy in Kg Alai”. It was located some 15 kms down the Klian Intan-Grik road.
I report to Capt Sabdin Ghani, OC A Coy
A Coy was commanded by Capt Sabdin Ghani, a Sabahan with some dashing looks. I was to command no 3 Pl, Call Sign 13 – it was a great coincidence, I was from Regular Intake 13 and my order of merit was 13th at my commissioning! I liked it – 13!.
Capt Sabdin welcomed me to the coy. He was warm but stern and after my interview I felt I had reached ‘home’, after being transformed from a milk-selling schoolboy into a cadet and then a 2nd Lt, the output of our proud RMC.
Capt Sabdin was very uncompromising on op discipline. On my very first op in the Kg Kerunai area in Grik, Perak in May 1971, one of my boys, lost a GPMG 7.62mm link-belt of 250 rounds. He only reported the loss on our return to base at Kg Alai. Naturally I had to report the loss to Capt Sabdin. He was not happy!! Bad start for me! He gave me a pounding and sent my platoon back immediately to recover the ammunition. Luckily, we found the belt at the place we based on the first day. On my return, I got the second dose, a lesson on leadership and responsibility that I never forgot. Capt Sabdin made me go through my first day sitrep in which I should have reported the loss. It was first lesson for me and it came quick on my very first mission.
Over some time, I got used to Capt Sabdin’s style of command. Many of his attributes I picked up and applied them myself. He coached me well and there was always plenty to learn. I walked tall in the unit. Obviously, Capt Sabdin became my mentor. He was a great sportsman too and I was pleased that we were in the unit’s hockey team. We displayed our skills well in local competitions in Sg Petani, Kedah where we challenged some top-ranking clubs, won some lost some.
Critical Considerations, 24th July 1972
Having analysed the requirements for the mission, Capt Sabdin selected a lean group – it was obvious, he wanted to travel light and fast. A vital criterion was the move upstream Sg Stamin at night for about 50 kms in two local boats. This needed experience and sound knowledge of the river especially at night. The Military Intelligence Officer (MIO) staff assisted in identifying two experienced boatmen. They were ready but unaware of the mission ahead.
Capt Sabdin’s strike team comprised Sargeant (Sgt) Lukas, a tough looking Sabahan, who took his orders and kept them in his memory - he was unable to read and write, so he remembered the orders well in his head. Lukas was also a feared sergeant and a disciplinarian. Capt Sabdin had full trust in him. Others in the group included Lance Corporal (LCpl) Rahman Puteh, a lively and very nitty character but at this time he walked around biting his lips. LCpl Ibrahim, my basketball teammate was the medical orderly. There was a radio operator and 7 others – rough and tough looking. Morale was high and they appeared very excited of the mission. I guessed they like it as it broke away from the routine search and destroy stuff.
The Night Move
At 1800hrs, I followed the group down to the Lundu jetty and saw them off in the 2 boats on local hire. The boatmen knew the river well and their night navigation skills were excellent. I stayed at the jetty till they disappeared into the night, again under the moonlight. I got back to the barracks and checked on my platoon, yes, the boys were ready. I found a comfortable place close by, leaned on my pack, felt my weapon beside me and visualised what laid ahead.
The group made steady progress and by 2130hrs reached Kg Selampit. They got off the boats and moved immediately to Kg Kabong, about 10 kms away, led by the border scout. The moonlight was a great advantage as it enhanced movement. The route to the target area was partly over swampy waters connected to dry points by bamboo stilts. Some in the group slipped off the stilts, recovered and made the stilts slippery but the group kept up with the pace moving quietly.
Just past midnight, they reached the target area, Kg Kabong. From the jungle fringe, some 200 meters away Capt Sabdin saw the two isolated huts with an open platform connecting the huts. And seated around a lighted lamp, the CTs were busy in conversation - 2 CTs were clearly seen while the other figures were mixed of locals.
“Dia akan balik tak lama lagi (they will be leaving very soon)” the border scout said, recalling that the CTs used to leave at around mid-night.
Sgt Lukas to Cut Off
Capt Sabdin called Sgt Lukas as he glanced at his watch: “Cepat, bawa 4 orang, buat cut-off sebelah hujung rumah! Saya akan serang dari sini! (Quickly, take 4 boys, move round the house and form a cut-off on the far side! I will attack from here)”. Lukas went off.
The border scout said: “Saya sini saja Tuan, saya tak mau ikut, takut! (I will wait here Sir, I do not want to follow, I am afraid!)”. That was fine with Capt Sabdin and withdrew him to the rear at the jungle fringe.
A little while later, Capt Sabdin and his group of 7 started crawling forward to get closer to the huts. As they crawled forward, they pushed away dried mengkuang leaves - big dry leaves that made a cracking noise if stepped on. The CTs were still in conversation as Sabdin’s group inched forward. Sgt Lukas in the meantime had moved in and taken up his cut-off position.
Sabdin’s group closed in to about 50 meters from the huts. Suddenly house dogs started barking. Surprised was compromised, the CTs were alarmed. They said quick goodbyes and moved hastily to get away. As the CTs descended the stilt steps of the huts Capt Sabdin’s group charged forward firing at the CTs. The CTs returned fire and disappeared into the darkness on the far side. The quiet of the night was shattered as Sgt Lukas also opened up from his cut-off position. As the firing ended the stillness of the night crept in again. Capt Sabdin organised an adhoc defence and reported the contact, as the ‘fogs of war’ reappeared.
I had monitored the reports. I moved my boys down to the jetty ready to deploy with our Riverine Unit in 4 assault boats manned by the unit Assault Pioneers. By 0500hrs we were off.
2 More CTs Killed
At first light, Capt Sabdin and his group searched and mopped up the area in the direction of CT withdrawal. LCpl Rahman led the mop up group, he moved forward and found a dead CT. Some 50m further, he found another wounded and motionless CT, seemingly having suffered some serious injury.
“Mati la gua!” the CT said. LCpl Rahman: “Puki Mak! Mati la lu!” and he planted a short burst of 9 mm rounds of his SMC into the CT. Rahman felt a sense of relieve seeking revenge for his fallen friends, he later told me. No wonder he was always biting his lips!
Capt Sabdin reported the 2 kills, morale rose high! We were midway to Kg Selampit in our boats and as I passed the information to the boys in the other boats, there was excitement and joy, we were beaming with great pride. I felt the adrenaline rush in my system and at that moment I felt I could fly!
The Follow Up
By 1000hrs I linked up with Capt Sabdin at the contact site. I got a quick brief and the direction the CTs withdrew. I followed the route, zig-zagging along the track to the Indonesian border. At that point all traces of movement were lost. After two days the follow up was called off and the Kg Kabong area was sectorised into an AO for me to operate, to protect the residents of the two huts in case the CTs returned to seek revenge.
MAJ SABDIN GHANI SUFFERS A STROKE
Failed Attempts to Recover Contact Documents
Capt Sabdin Ghani was promoted to Major later in service. He left the army in 1975. In 2002, he suffered a stroke and was half paralysed. I visited him in 2007 and 2008 during some safety training assignments (after my retirement from service) in Kota Kinabalu. He was a pale shadow of the dynamite he once was. It was very hurting to see him such. He was able to recognise me and made many gestures which I could not understand. His wife, Kak Noor Jamilah Bee Binti Abdul Majid Osman, a wonderful lady, explained that Sabdin often recalled the contact he had in 1972, even before his stroke, but was greatly disappointed at not being able to get any documents nor visit the site. I too tried to reach out to the documents of the contact but failed. But I promised him I would get it documented.
RIP Maj Dato Sabdin Ghani, 2015
Major Sabdin Ghani was bestowed Datoship by His Highness the Governor of Sabah in 2014. In 1972 he received a federal AMN award. As fate would have it, Dato Sabdin Ghani passed away in 2015. He remains one of my most admired officer and it was a privilege to have served under his command. He deserved better especially of the contact in Kg Kabong in July 1972 where he displayed great valour. May his soul rest in peace forever.
Reflecting back, the past 50 years has brought about much change. 7th Rangers has changed from the foot slogging infantry to mechanised infantry. Documents and records of pervious contacts are rare to find, not only in 7th Rangers but quite widespread in the army. War diaries are not maintained, if at all only found in a few units which know their value. The old officers and soldiers have faded away into the horizon, and their experiences have gone with them. Lessons learnt that ought to have been captured in Contact Analysis Reports are no longer found, hence the gap between the past and the present generation is quite wide. However, there are intriguing aspects of the late 70s and 80s that are worth recapturing.
Changes in Warfare
Insurgency, more so in the local environment is no longer fought from the jungles. Instead, it has found its place in urban areas which calls for doctrinal reviews in combating urban warfare (scope for separate study).
Intelligence formed the basis for operational deployment. The role of Special Branch (SB) and the MIO was paramount. In the contacts of A Coy, border scouts played a vital role in bringing in the information/intelligence thus enabling the unit to make accurate assessments that led to successes. In particular, the border scout who provided the information in Capt Sabdin’s contact, travelled on his own for some 60 kms to reach 7th Rangers Tac Hq. He graded well as a source and substance/information.
However, why was there no information leading to the CT ambush of 26th March 1972? Was the intelligence assessment in the unit’s AO correctly done before being redeployed to Serian? The planning and execution of an ambush takes days. Surely the presence and movements of the CT group (30-40 CTs) could have been detected. Obviously, there was failure to correctly assess the intelligence situation.
The redeployment of the unit’s fighting-echelon to Serian, meant all four rifle companies were committed to Serian. There were no fighting elements left behind to protect the unit’s line of communication (L of C) at Lundu. Those left behind were some “bottle washers” comprising clericals and left out of battle (LOBs). Was 7th Rangers not given time to clear its own AO and secure its L of C before being deployed to Serian? Was consideration to leave behind a credible force to protect its rear done? Some unanswered questions, could the tragedy have been averted?
Movement at night enables concealment and the achievement of surprise, a vital Principle of War. Both, Capt Sabdin’s and Lt Abdullah’s groups were inserted into their mission areas by night. This paved the way to achieve surprise and success. Small groups travelling light move fast. Capt Sabdin exploited this and was able to reach his target in 6 hours and surprise the CT group.
It is a basic requirement that any attack must be preceded with a plan which includes a detailed recognisance. This requirement is more stringent in a night attack. In both the situations confronting Capt Sabdin and Lt Abdullah, decisions made to attack and ambush were made in split seconds. What had gone through the minds of both the officers is hard to predict but both carried consequences of failure. But their decisions bore success. Some aspects of their courses of actions are:
• Lt Abdullah decided to stop at around midnight and to continue movement at first light. As he halted, he laid the linear ambush on the track maximising on the use of claymore mines. About thirty (30) minutes later, the CTs walked in. Had Abdullah continued his march, it would have resulted in a chance contact, the result of which is hard to predict. Would we have recovered the loss of our TRA 906 radio set? A credit to Lt Abdullah, he may have said his prayers right. Did WO11 Rahman Harimau’s statement as they left Lundu camp have any bearing? Or was the element of luck at play?
• Capt Sabdin’s actions were ‘impulse decisions. He was confronted with a time constraint but he held the initiative, he knew the CTs were present but they were unaware of his presence. His decision to send Sgt Lukas immediately to cut-off while he assaulted the CT group was very commendable – it is just what officers are trained to do – make decisions. Defying principles and basic night attack requirements are normally made by risk takers and Capt Sabdin took this bravely. Some key factors influenced the outcome:
o Team selection, Capt Sabdin knew what outcome he desired and selected a lean team. He knew his boys well and they too were excited.
o The moonlight enabled the team to move at a good rate of advance. On reaching his destination Capt Sabdin had a good view of the target itself.
o The team practiced good fieldcraft to the final moment before the assault. In doing so, the element of surprise was achieved to the last possible moment. Credit.
o Capt Sabdin ‘won the fire fight’. He opened fire first and retained the initiative. Fire was further intensified from Sgt Luka’s group.
o The CTs obviously had been complacent in staying long hours and without posting sentries. Perhaps they did not expect a night threat and were over confident.
Morale, the intangible Element of Combat Power
The 3 elements of combat power: firepower, manoeuvre and morale were visible in both contacts, though morale is hard to identify as a physical entity. Both groups were speedily moved into their operations and exerted enough fire power to win the fire fights. With Lt Abdullah’s opening accounts for the unit morale in the unit rose. Needless to say, at company level it was at peak.
Capt Sabdin and Lt Abdullah displayed highly visible leadership qualities. They led from the front. They saw opportunities open and exploited them. They were clear in their orders. They maximised on natural terrain and used the approaches to the targets well. Capt Sabdin displayed raw courage in deciding to launch a quick night attack and was duly rewarded.
There may have been an element of luck in both contacts, Lt Abdullah deciding to stop and lay a linear ambush while the CT’s complacency gave Capt Sabdin an advantage he exploited. Luck is neutral and, in both cases, it fell to the officers of A Coy.