Tuesday, May 29, 2012

"Hello 29, this is 2A. Relay Drop 800 over"

The Stratosphere

I was commanding B Bty 2 Arty in 1970. The Regiment was deployed to Sarawak, and my Bty was deployed to Bau with gun troops in Semantan, Lundu and a third troop in reserve in Bau itself. Regimental HQ was in Airport Camp Batu Tujuh.
It was during the dry season that 3 Bde conducted a large search and destroy operation in the low wetlands of Nonok, 30 km northwest of Kuching. The ops was conducted together with the local PFF Police battalion. 3 bde also deployed an infantry battalion.

Nonok in the wet season was all swamps and not motorable. In the dry seasons patches of high ground were dry and would be available to deploy guns, albeit we still have to support the gun trails with sandbags. Gun pits were no deeper than a foot deep. Anything deeper would result in having a nice well for water. Ammunitions have to be stacked on makeshift racks. This was the best time to conduct the search and destroy operations as the area was kown to have housed CT camps and their forward bases.

Bty Tac HQ and a troop of two guns were deployed together with the Bde  and Infantry batalion Tac HQs. The PFF Tac Hq and theirPFF reserve platoons were located on another dry area 800 meters away. Lt Hashim and his FOO party was asigned to one of the PFF platoon conducting patrols about 6 kilometers away.

There was no action for the past one week during the operation. Daily sitreps were received in all Tac HQs on time per SOP. All was well and normal. It was hot and dry during the day and even hotter during the night.

The fire mission came in clear through the Bty VHF  Fire Orders Net late one afternoon. A single smoke round was immediately fired  in response. There were no contact reports with all the Tac HQs. All radio networks cracked with calls for Radio Checks. It was very tense and eerie. No comms. Nobody was in the air. Not the infantry, not the PFF networks. What is happening? Total blackout.  But a call for fire had just came in from the FOO.

A minute passed. Two minutes, Five. Ten , still no comms to and from the FOO. I reported the  contact to the Bde Comd and to the PFF comd by voice line, and gave them the possible location of the PFF pl in contact with the enemy, knowing the grid reference of the target in the fire mission.

Why was there no response from the FOO? My mind was troubled. Did our first round actually fall on the Platoon's position?  Map reading in Nonok area is notoriously mad and difficiult. The terrain is all flat and covered with mangrove trees and bushes. Then.

" Hello 29, this is 20A,  RELAY. DROP 800 over" this came in as a miracle over our normal HF Bty Net. 20A is A troop CP deployed to Semantan 120 kilometers to our northeast.

"29, Relay Drop 800 out". We are back in business. We have comms. The FOO had somewhat managed to call out their correction to the fire orders via our Bty HF net. Unconventional, but who cares.The Semantan troop  which is more than a 120 km away had  pick up the call.  I passed the order for correction to the gun CP by TENOY line. The next round of smoke was fired within minutes. Smoke rounds were used as standard ammunition for ajustment by convention.

"Hello 20A this is 29, SHOT over." No response. Comms dead again. All stations were again silent.

Time passed. One and a half hours. Still no comms.  And then it happened again.

"Hello 29, this is 2, RELAY,  ON TARGET FIRE FOR EFFECT over"  This time my Bty HQ is Bau, 30 kilometers east of Kuching had picked up the call from the FOO.

"29, RELAY, ON TARGET FIRE FOR EFFECT out"  Fantastic. Good job. We are actually on target. I passed the fire orders to the gun CP. Five HE  rounds from each gun fired simuntenously. Five rounds HE is standard FFE by convention. Ten rounds in all were fired in rapid succession.

"Hello 2, this is 29. SHOT over" Dead. No response.  The situation became more tense. Ten rounds had been fired on the target. This time the chances of our HE round falling into our own position is more imminent. We kept the radio checks going every two minutes.

The sun was setting low over the mangrove trees. I discussed the situation with the Bde Comd and the PFF comd. Nobody had comms. It would be dark soon. As there were lack of further comms and fire orders, I had proposed to the commanders that we fire illumination rounds every minute for 10 minutes. Illumination rounds take one minute to drop to the ground. At least the platoon would have light to dig in for the night. 10 rounds of illumination per gun was the standard first line illumination rounds carried.

At last light,  I gave orders to the Gun CP to fire 10 rounds illumination at a minute's interval.  Twenty rounds illuminations were fired in 20 minutes. There were still no comms, And all we could do was wait and monitor. We did not stood down for the night. No comms for everybody throughout the night. We prayed. We prayed that our rounds had not hit our own troops. 5 rounds FFE from two guns would have a good spread over the target area.

At first light, a very happy FOO came in loud and clear in the Bty HF net.

"Hello all stations, this is 23, SELAMAT PAGI....."

Every network was working again. Radio checks were strength fives. Sitreps were received and the situation was under complete control.

The FOO had reported that our fire mission was very effective. The corrections and fire for effect had save their lives. The platoon and the FOO party had expended all their first line ammunition. They were diging in for the night when the illumination rounds came overhead. Illumination had helped them a lot and they were very thankful for it. Some of the platoon members managed to bring back the parashutes for the illumination rounds as souviners. Most parashutes were entangled high up the mangrove trees.
It was a very successful fire mission. But comms had failed us. Did it ?Comms did not fail us !! Bravery and initiatives by all saved the day.

In our post mortem, the contact area was only about 6 .5 kilometers from the gun position. Well within comms range of VHF sets. We were to know that the arial of the FOO's PRC 77 VHF set was broken off during the fire fight. Hence no comms after the initial fire orders. The signaller in the FOO party had taken the initiative to run under enemy fire to stretch out a ground arial to establish comms using  the BTY HF NET.  The HF Racall 931 is pretty useless with the rod arial.

 HF comms can be interupted by stratospheric conditions creating dead grounds and skip zones. Signal refractions in the stratosphere can throw signals over long distances. This was what had happened.

This was an incident worth remembering and learning lessons from it. What can I say other than Life is like that , full of challenges and surprises. 

But we had God with us.

Allen Lai

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