The Brunei Revolt and Its British Military Postal History 1962-1963
The Brunei Revolt (1962-1963)
It's often claimed that it was because the Sultan of Brunei couldn't accept becoming a constitutional monarch or failure to agree on the disposition of Brunei's oil revenues which caused the Sultan to decide against joining the Federation of Malaysia in 1963. While there may be some truth to these claims, many commentators also believe these issues only became "deal breaking" following the Brunei Revolt of December 1962. So was the Sultan of Brunei's decision to remain outside of the Malaysian Federation due in large part to his interpretation of the politics behind the revolt? I suspect so.
The Brunei Revolt began on December 8th 1962 when North Kalimantan National Army (TNKU) rebels launched co-ordinated attacks in the capital, Brunei Town, against the oil producing town of Seria and government buildings throughout the British protectorate which then spread quickly to neighbouring colony of Sarawak. The rebels specifically targeted the Royal Dutch Shell oil facilities in Seria and police stations around Brunei and Sarawak. Although the initial revolt failed to achieve many of its objectives, which included seizing control of Brunei Town and capturing the Sultan of Brunei, the action would become the precursor of the undeclared war known as the Indonesian Confrontation.
Having gained independence from the United Kingdom on January 1st 1984 the name of Brunei Darussalam was adopted for, what is now, a wealthy, modern sovereign state located on the north coast of Borneo with a resident population of more than 400,000. The captial city is Bandar Seri Begawan, previously called Brunei Town until October 1972. Apart from the South China Sea coastline, Brunei is totally enclosed and separated in to two parts by the Malaysian state of Sarawak and Brunei Darussalam now shares the island of Borneo with both Malaysia and Indonesia.
Brunei had become a British protectorate in 1888 during the reign of Queen Victoria. Comprising of land covering roughly 2,250 square miles, the population during the 1960s was estimated to number about 85,000 of which around half were Malay and the other half equally represented by people of Chinese and indigenous Dayak origin. When oil was discovered around the town of Seria in 1929 the Shell Petroleum Company was granted a concession which to this day generates a very large income.
In 1959, following Japanese occupation during World War II, the Sultan of Brunei announced a new constitution had been agreed with the United Kingdom that declared Brunei would become a self-governing state along with plans to establish a new legislature where half the members would be nominated and the other half decided by elections which were planned for September 1962. After 1959 only Brunei's foreign relations and defence matters would remain the responsibility of the United Kingdom. During 1971, as part of the lead up toward full independence, a new agreement was signed with the United Kingdom where Brunei and the UK agreed to share the responsibility for security and defence. This agreement meant the UK would station Gurkha units in Brunei where, under continuing agreement reviewed every five years between the two nations, they still remain - based in Seria - today.
At the same time as the 1959 Brunei constitutional announcement, the United Kingdom, Malaya, Singapore, North Borneo (later Sabah) and Sarawak started negotiating the formation of a new Malaysian Federation and, it was anticipated by many, that Brunei might opt to join the new Malaysia. The Philippines and Indonesia fiercly opposed the possible unification of Brunei, North Borneo (Sabah) and Sarawak within a new Malaysian Federation. The Brunei People's Party only supported joining the new Malaysian Federation if the three territories of northern Borneo were first unified to prevent their future domination by Malaya or Singapore.
However, before the Brunei People's Party (BPP) swept the board in Brunei's 1962 elections, a para-military organisation said to be linked to them began to emerge. This was the North Kalimantan National Army (TNKU), portraying itself as an anti-colonialist liberation movement. The TNKU aligned itself with Indonesia which, it claimed, had a better understanding of their liberation claims than Malaya or Singapore. The TNKU was led by Sheikh Azahari who had previously fought Dutch rule in Indonesia and was known to still have links to their intelligence agencies. Despite gaining one of the BPP legislature seats in the Brunei elections, Azahari believed BPP ambitions would always be thwarted by the Sultan's nominated members. By the end of 1962 TNKU forces reportedly numbered up to 4000 men armed with some modern weapons but, more frequently, just basic shotguns and knives.
The Brunei Revolt began in the early hours of 8th December 1962. The British Far East HQ in Singapore started to receive reports of attacks on police stations, the Sultan's residence, the home of the Prime Minister and the power station. Police stations - including the main Police HQ in Brunei Town - were an important source of weapons for the rebels as an armoury was sited in each of them. Far East HQ was soon receiving reports of rebel forces approaching Brunei Town via the river that connected the capital to the sea a few miles away and two companies of Gurkha infantry were ordered to be ready in Singapore.
Although power cuts suggested some rebel success, almost all the TNKU attacks in Brunei Town were fought off. Elsewhere the rebels had gained control of many police stations in Brunei and Sarawak. Miri stayed in government hands but Limbang was taken by the rebels. In Seria the rebels had captured the police station and were in position to threaten Brunei's oilfields. Local accounts say that, on December 8th between 2am and 5am, repeated shots were heard around many rebel held police stations as civilians were executed by TNKU fighters for not joining the rebellion. At about 6.30am the Sultan of Brunei made a radio broadcast charging the TNKU, as the armed wing of the Brunei People's Party, with treason.
As news of these events filtered through to Singapore, the two companies of Gurkha Rifles on standby were moved to RAF Changi and RAF Seletar to fly to Labuan, a small island (part of North Borneo) located off the coast of Brunei. Some flights were diverted en route direct to Brunei Town airfield when it became clear the TNKU rebels had failed to seize control of the capital.
Landing late in the evening on 8th December, the Gurkhas wasted no time and advanced immediately toward Brunei Town. They engaged in a series of actions at a cost to them of six casualties, including two dead. Captain Digby Willoughby led a small party of Gurkhas to secure the Sultan and escorted him to the police HQ for protection. The Gurkhas met fierce opposition when they moved toward Seria so returned to Brunei Town to counter the ongoing rebel threat there and near the airfield until reinforcement arrived.
On December 9th local British ex-pats organised hundreds of local Dayaks - who had quickly responded to traditional local jungle distress messages - to form units of a defence force that would soon number 2,000 men. Given their knowledge of tracks through Brunei and Sarawak they helped cut off many escape routes to Indonesia which contained some of the rebels. The Gurkhas that had landed on Labuan were quickly being reinforced to full battalion strength and the Queen's Own Highlanders started to arrive from Singapore on December 10th. Although Seria and Limbang remained in rebel hands for a few days, this rapid reinforcement meant they would be recaptured relatively quickly and easily.
After nine days it was determined the revolt had been successfully put down. Around 40 rebels were dead and thousands more had surrendered, been captured of fled across the border to Indonesia. The rebel leaders had apparently escaped capture and Azahari soon made an appearance in the Philippines.
The Limbang Hostages
One of the most dramatic events of the rebellion occured in Limbang, Sarawak close to Brunei. On the night of December 8th, TNKU rebels had attacked the police station, killing five local policemen and secured the surrender of a local British official Richard Morris, his wife and four other Europeans plus an American Peace Corps worker. They were crowded into police cells, along with other surviving policemen, for three days before being moved to a local hospital on December 11th where they could overhear the rebels planning to hang them. Fortunately for the hostages, 42 Commando Royal Marines had arrived in Sarawak on December 11th and they were immediately tasked with freeing the Limbang hostages.
Despite having only an out of date map and poor aerial photos - and without the advantage of surprise due to the loud engined boats they had to use - the Royal Marines managed to suppress accurate rebel machine gun fire enough to land close to Limbang Police Station at dawn on December 12th although casualties were suffered in both boats. As they began a search for the hostages assistance came when the sound of fighting prompted the Morris family and their fellow hostages to start singing "She'll be coming round the Mountain". Sadly, two of the three Royal Marines in the first rescue party sent in to the hospital were killed in the action and a second attempt was needed to secure the hostages.
In all, there were about 200 rebels armed with a Bren Gun, Lee-Enfield rifles plus many more with shotguns and knives. While many rebels tried to escape the area, many also tried to stand their ground. By the end the action in Limbang, five Royal Marines had been killed and eight more wounded. All the hostages were rescued alive along with a policeman who had managed to hide in the roofspace of the police station, used as the rebel HQ, since the initial attack. He confirmed the Royal Marines dawn arrival came just in time for the hostages as the rebels had agreed to carry out their execution a few hours later that day.
There's now a public memorial to all the dead in Limbang and the captured leader of the Limbang rebels would carry on living in the town following his release from prison after serving 11 years for his part in the rebellion.
Intelligence Gathering & Special Forces
The intelligence gathering effort and operations undertaken by special forces in times of conflict are always difficult to research. However, looking at the various units deployed in Borneo at the time, it's easy to conclude that intelligence gathering was undoubteldy being carried out on a large scale. This probably included Army, RAF and Royal Navy Signals Intelligence (SigInt) operators monitoring radio traffic, human intelligence (HumInt) being gathered from prisoner interrogations and friendly local sources plus feedback coming from clandestine border operations by the Special Air Service.
On the ground, in addition to patrols by Gurkhas and Royal Marines, it's known that around 100 men of A Squadron 22 SAS were deployed along the jungle border between Indonesia and the states of North Borneo (Sabah) & Sarawak during January 1963. Most references to SAS operations at that time in Borneo refer to small teams - sometimes working with indigenous tribesmen - monitoring, tracking and reporting cross-border movements to allow for advance warnings and ambushes. While true, these operations were also being routinely undertaken by Royal Marine Commandos and Gurkhas and well informed sources have little doubt that deniable cross-border raids inside Indonesia were taking place long before the officially approved and well documented "Codename Claret" operations of the latter part of the Confrontation period. Probable evidence of such activity also shows up in contemporary reports by Royal Marines and Gurkhas who occassionally found high quality, modern weapons hidden along the border which, being unaware of the tactics employed by special forces, they assumed were evidence of enemy activity.
The Mopping Up After The Revolt
By December 17th 1962, the deployment of 42 Commando was complete, 1st Green Jackets had been landed in Miri by the cruiser HMS Tiger and arrangements had been made to deter the Chinese of the Clandestine Communist Organisation (CCO) who had been openly supportive of the Brunei rebels.
Major General Walter Walker was appointed Commander British Borneo (COMBRITBOR) and Director of Borneo Operations (DOBOPS) with effect December 19th 1962 reporting direct to the Commander-in-Chief of Far East Forces, Admiral Sir David Luce. Three weeks after the rebellion started, 99th Gurkha Infantry Brigade had 5 infantry battalions in Brunei and 3rd Command Brigade HQ was established in Kuching, Sarawak. The Brunei Malay Regiment, the Sarawak Rangers, police of the three territories including the para-military Police Field Force and the force of Dayaks organised by ex-pats were all available to support British forces. Royal Navy minesweepers were now patroling the coastline and the Royal Air Force had deployed aircraft. During the following month the original force of Queen's Own Highlanders and Gurkhas were replaced by the King's Own Yorkshire Light Infantry and 1st/7th Gurkhas. 42 Commando were relieved by 40 Commando early in the New Year and British special forces in the form of 22 Special Air Service (SAS) were also on the ground.
Mopping up operations continued for some months and it was as late as May 1963 that Gurkhas flushed a rebel camp discovered in a coastal mangrove towards a prepared ambush. Ten rebels were killed or captured and they were later found to be the remnants of the TNKU HQ including a wounded Yassin Affendi, the last senior TNKU leader that, until then, had remained unaccounted for.
A month before Affendi's capture, on April 12th, the police station at Tebedu in Sarawak had been attacked and captured by fighters originating from Indonesian Kalimantan. Although it wasn't obvious at the time, these were not the same rebels involved with the revolt and it marked the beginning of the longer term undeclared war known as the Indonesian Confrontation.
At the time of the Brunei Revolt - and throughout the period of the Indonesian Confrontation - physical, verbal and written comunications on Borneo were a challenge.
Compared to today, the northern states of Borneo in the sixties had few roads of any quality. The numerous tidal rivers fed by heavy tropical rainfall in the jungle segmented the coastline where many of the major population centres were located. These rivers were often the only way forces could reach their remote forward operating bases, visit inland villages and mount patrols along many parts of the Indonesian border. Supplying these patrols and forward bases was frequently carried out by air drop and troops in these remote locations had to rely solely on radio communication to arrange helicopter support if they ran in to trouble or needed injured personnel evacuated quickly.
The importance of radio communications in Borneo had been recognised long before the revolt in Brunei and it's easy to see how crucial the reliable radio link with Singapore was. If it weren't for accurate reports getting to Singapore in near real time on 8th December it's unlikely troops would have been deployed as quickly as they were and the later notice from Singapore that day confirming the Gurkhas were inbound only got to Brunei Town Police HQ via the airfield tower.
The management of radio communications in Borneo at the time was the reposnsibility of Ron Skelton, an employee of the British Colonial Service based in Sibu, Sarawak. He was responsible for all telecomms in the region including police, marine and aviation. Ron was also a keen radio operator known to many enthusiasts around the world at the time by his callsign VS4RS and this QSL card (confirmation of radio contact) was sent by him in October 1963. It's interesting to see how Ron was adding "Malaysian Borneo" to his QSL cards just a few weeks after the Malaysian Federation had been formed.
The Postal History, BFPO Address and Field Post Office Numbers During Brunei Revolt
Sibu was also an important coastal port in Sarawak and it quickly became a major logistical centre for military operations in Borneo, not least, for the morale boosting mail to troops. Soon after the Brunei Revolt, mail was being landed in Sibu from ships offshore or via Labuan and this would continue throughout the longer Indonesian Confrontation. While most mail would usually get distributed via the various military HQs, a lot of supply drops by air included letters to troops operating in the jungle.
Field Post staff detachments from the far east region, including 368 Postal Unit RE based at Terendak Camp in Malaya, were set up in Labuan and Sibu soon after the Brunei Revolt began and would operate throughout the Indonesian Confrontation. Other field detachments from the UK included personnel from 5 Infantry Brigade PCU RE based in Tidworth.
Postal history items of the Brunei Revolt are understandably scarce now and highly prized by collectors. No Field Post Office (FPO) facilities went in with the initial Brunei Revolt deployments of 8th December until they had been reinforced during the days that followed. Field postal facilities were then established initially in Brunei Town and on Labuan and the postal address BFPO 605 was allocated. This address would remain in use for Brunei during the extended period of the Indonesian Confrontation.
The norm for British forces mail was to use British stamps on outgoing mail (usually Wilding definitives) but the fast initial deployments and ongoing supply difficulties meant mail was often accepted stampless if prepaid. Forces mail from Brunei and the wider Borneo area was routed via Singapore. Some forces mail originating in Brunei, Sarawak or North Borneo during this period is found franked with the stamps and postmarks of Singapore. Similarly, examples of British forces mail can also be found which used the local stamps of the Borneo states and a concessionary rate was in operation.
The following eight Field Post Office postmarks used on Borneo during the sixties have been associated with the Brunei Revolt period:
FPO 948 was located on the island of Labuan and used from December 1962. This FPO postmark was relocated to Sarawak during the later Indonesian Confrontation.
FPO 964 Is believed to have been located in Brunei Town soon after the revolt began and is known to have been used in December 1962. This FPO postmark was later moved in to Sarawak during the following Indonesian Confrontation period.
FPO 1030 is known to have begun operating in North Borneo (Sabah) in the Tawau area on the east coast near the Indonesian border from early February 1963. By this time British Special Forces (A Sqn 22 SAS), Royal Marines and Gurkhas were deployed and regularly operating along the Indonesian border close to Tawau.
FPO 1034 has not been seen used in Brunei before January 1963 and its use ceased quite quickly meaning this FPO isn't often associated with the following Indonesian Confrontation period.
FPO 1035 Appears to have been the last FPO set up on Borneo during the Brunei Revolt period and use has not been recorded before February 1963. This FPO is believed to have stayed active within Brunei during the Indonesian Confrontation.
FPO 1044 Has not been seen used before January 1963 but would remain in Brunei for use during the Indonesian Confrontation.
FPO 1059 Brunei Revolt related forces mail is likely to be found with this postmark as it was in use in Sarawak by March 1963.
FPO 1061 This FPO is usually associated with use around Simangan, Sarawak during the Confrontation but, although I've yet to confirm it, earlier use by 40 Commando, Royal Marines (Jan-July 1963) has been reported.
Click here to view current listings of Field Post Office postmarks used on cover (opens in new window)
Brunei Revolt - British Forces Order of Battle
The following British Military units - or elements of them - were deployed to Borneo during the Brunei Revolt period prior to May 1963:
- 1st/2nd Gurkhas
- 1st/7th Gurkhas
- 40 Commando Royal Marines
- 42 Commando Royal Marines
- Queen's Royal Irish Hussars
- 29th Commando Light Regiment Royal Artillery
- Queen's Own Highlanders
- King's Own Yorkshire Light Infantry
- 1st Green Jackets
- 22 Special Air Service
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