84 Field Survey Squadron

Memories - part two

 It is over fifty years ago now, but Alf Isherwood’s recollections of 84 Field Survey Squadron  brought back many fond memories as I , like Alf, was a founder member of that Squadron in 1955.  However where we differed is that I travelled in the comparative luxury of air flight.  Air transportation was then  in its infancy but 13  Fld Svy Sqn based at Fernhurst were amongst the lucky ones with five of its members namely Sgts Raglan (MT), Reid, Thompson, Cpl Litterick and LCpl Birch being posted to Chatham pending flight details. Whether we were forgotten or not for another two months I will never know but as the only single soldier of the party in a town where my only commitment seemed to be to console the multitude of Wrens ‘so far from home’ could hardly be called a punishment posting! But someone, somewhere, found us so  off to Malaya we went. 

Alf gave an excellent factual account of the multitude and varied operations we were both involved in so perhaps I should dwell more on the lighter side of life. Like the order that everyone must revert to their substantive rank in order to balance the Sqn’s establishment. This required a certain married Corporal, who being embarrassed about the situation, told his wife (as she noticed a lesser number of stripes adorning his uniform) that in Malaya full Corporals only wear one stripe. This was lovingly accepted until two months later when his sub promotion came through and that extra stripe suddenly re-appeared. A very close friend, we still talk about it to this day. 

Prior to going ‘up-country’ on operations one had to attend a Jungle Warfare course at Kota Tingi in Johore, so I duly attended along with other Sqn members.  A major security factor was the establishment of a manned perimeter around the encampment area.   It is not for me to apportion blame but being in a relative safe area our party decided to play cards instead. All was well and good until a Ghurkha Officer and Australian Sergeant suddenly appeared in our basha.  Suffice to say that from that party one Sgt, two Cpls and yours truly received the dubious accolade of possibly being the only soldiers ever to be charged with gambling in the jungle. The Sappers were never charged as it was considered the NCOs were leading them astray! 

The main task of the two Field Troops was the revision of the Malay mapping which required the verification of various detail which could not be positively identified by the Topographical Troop from aerial photographs. Imagine my surprise when I was tasked with venturing into the Seremban jungle to confirm a “Church with Spire.”  My arguments that a replica of Canterbury Cathedral was unlikely to be found in the middle of a Malay jungle stood for nought until after a three day leech sucking, mosquito biting trek I could confirm to our Air Surveyors in their air conditioned offices that the church with spire was no more than an old smelting shack sticking up on end. 

One day Alf and I were both summoned separately on top secret operations, neither knowing the existence of each other. It appeared that the Communist Guerrilla leader, Ching Peng, was to come out of the jungle at Crow on the Siam -Malay border for peace talks. My brief was to select and co-ordinate various positions close to the jungle perimeter in order to assist the RAF in their blind bombing operations if the co-ordinates of the leader’s jungle camp could be ascertained.

My accommodation was with the Australian Infantry where I was ushered to my temporary bed space.  I did not need to introduce myself to my neighbour for there was Alf Isherwood!  Alf’s brief, although only disclosed to me as operations commenced, was ,with the assistance of the infantry, to track Ching Peng into his jungle hide and co-ordinate the position, which in association with my external positions would enable simple bearing and distance comps  to be calculated for a successful bombing operation. Alf’s jungle exploits were vividly described in his article but an unshaven, unclean soldier sporting a 30 day beard was the next time I met him at our de-brief. 

As Borneo started to come onto the political scene a new Field Troop was formed to undertake the mapping of that area. The troop was to be formed with a nucleus of jungle experienced members from 84 Sqn reinforced with personnel from Fernhurst’s 13 Fld Svy Sqn.  A new Troop needed a new Troop Sergeant and I was the soldier in the right place at the right time so promotion to senior rank came early. 

But even this new found glory had its lighter moments. Members will recall that the office toilet block was situated on a mound which sported  two notices showing the discriminatory attitude existing at that period of time.  The notices, “Officers and Senior NCOs”   and “Other Ranks and Asians”, the posh toilet being accessible only by one‘s personal key!.  I was now one of the former so proudly walked to my allotted side of the block singing “I’ve got the key of the door” swinging my new badge of rank----no, not the extra stripe, the personal key!  I was soon brought down to earth with a not amused OC sternly informing me that I could easily become the shortest holder of three stripes that ever existed. 

As our surveys in Borneo were progressing the worst storms for some time occurred causing severe flooding. This resulted in sub detachments of surveyors being spread far and wide with little or no communication (no mobiles in those days). Captain Todd (R. A. Svy Corps) was naturally frantic as to the whereabouts of our annotated aerial photographs last seen in the care of a national serviceman named Sapper Shenker. To understand what happened next I must emphasise that Spr Shenker was an ultra intelligent qualified botanist who was invariably found taking snap-shots of fauna and flora. As Shenker managed to ford the river Capt Todd rushed to meet him like a long lost son shouting “Well done, well done, where are the photos? “  Unfortunately Shenkers mind was never exactly tuned to the military side of life and only thinking of his precious butterfly snaps  quickly replied  “ No problem thank you Sir, I was fortunate to send them to Boots for processing before the floods came!“ Etiquette decrees I do not include the actions or words of a frustrated Australian Troop Commander at that time! But it is alleged that Sapper Shenker stated afterwards that he wished he had been drowned in the floods!

Nevertheless we accomplished our task in the allotted time and returned to Kuala Lumpur just as my three year stint was coming to an end. 

I have tried to show that even during the difficult times of the Malay Emergency with little comforts for the Field Surveyor the esprit de Corps of that new squadron was such that one could achieve excellent results but still have time for a smile.  Many friends, including national service members, who served in 84 Sqn in those early days often attend our annual AGM, so either at our annual gatherings or via articles in our newsletter memories will rarely fade. 

Ron Birch

With thanks to  Ron for this contribution.