By Colin Price (written for 'Ranger' Summer 2006)
Preface: January 2006
I have been asked to commit to paper my memories of the final days of a proud unit as I was in a unique position, being the SQMS of the Squadron and present at its close. It has been 36 years since these events took place and the fine details have faded as one might expect, so please forgive me if facts are inaccurate in any way. If any kind soul can correct me let me know, as I would be pleased for the history to be recorded correctly for posterity.
84 Survey Squadron RE was situated as some may remember, off the North Buona Vista Road at the end of Dover Road opposite the Garrison Church, on the Pasir Panjang Estate in Singapore Postal District 5. The Squadron shared the small camp with 556 Field Survey Depot RE. It was a quiet military backwater where it seemed only Squadron members, Map Depot staff and its customers, military funeral parties and visitors to the Church and its congregation ventured.
It was sometime in late 1969 that the then Officer Commanding, Major TWG Farmer RE, informed the Squadron of its forthcoming fate. This was, that towards the end of 1970 or early 1971, the complete withdrawal of British Forces from the region would take place as the responsibility for the defence of the independent and Sovereign (Island) State of Singapore (9 Aug 1965) had come to an end after 151 years. I think it was in March or April 1970 that the last OC, Major MR Richards RE, broke the news to all of Headquarters Troop that 84 Survey Squadron was to disband upon closure at the end of the year and that the unit's real estate and assets were to be handed over to the Singapore Government. I am of the belief, if my memory serves me correctly, that early indications lead us to think the Chief Surveyor of Singapore was to take the Unit over as a going concern but this was to change much later to a unit of the Singapore Army,
As a very green SQMS at the time, having only taken over the post late in 1969, I remember quaking in my boots and putties at the thought of all the work and preparation that would have to be done to make the Squadron ready for handover, and the prospect of dispatching all our soldiers' MFO safely on its way to Blighty (UK) was daunting.
1 Troop was still in Sarawak, up river from Kapit, doing its best to conquer the jungle hazards whilst performing their trig and heighting tasks and being resupplied from Dover Road by my small team of able and hardworking staff comprising; Corporal Roy Campion, Sapper Jock McCullagh and not to forget the Malay Corporal, whose name, forgive me, escapes me now.
As the months passed, key dates were revealed slowly. 1 Troop members returned progressively to Singapore in June and July and it was planned that all of them should return to UK to their various postings in their turn as the administration demanded. Whilst these moves were in progress the Squadron was given its final dates for closure and handover, which was to be at the end of November/early December.
The process for winding down had been meticulously planned and was starting to be executed. In essence, the plan was to release key staff as their tasks came to an end and that the fully equipped unit, except for certain controlled Field Survey and Air Survey instruments and equipment, was to be presented to the Singaporeans. The Drawing Office had little or no work by this time and the Printers were doing only limited reprinting to top up stocks for 556 Field Survey Depot.
In late June the Squadron received orders to send a detachment of field surveyors to Pontianak in Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo) on Operation Mandaw, to compliment a unit of Australian surveyors for two to three months assisting the Indonesian Government in marking out plots of forested land for a mass migration scheme to relieve pressures on the population of the Island of Java. Equipping this small force entailed unpacking equipment destined for UK and demanding new stores before they could travel. All this at a time when my over-worked staff, already working a full day, was brought under additional pressure to perform further feats of effort and dedication.
Guard Room and the HQ and Drawing Office building with the corner of the
Graining Room in the foreground.
The process of carrying out the 100% stock check of the G10 stores (Unit Equipment Table) and accommodation stores had to proceed despite these interruptions. Deficiencies had to be made up and damaged stores replaced. The Q Stores was to be complete and laid out as for inspection and all offices including the Print Shop complete with tools and equipment, were to be up to scale and set out ready for use.
It was at about this time when one calm, dark, humid afternoon whilst doing paper work and making up boxes, my team and I experienced what it is like to be struck by lightning. Out of nowhere it seemed, the bolt cracked above our heads onto the telegraph post attached to the end of the Store roof and the thunder echoed skywards getting louder as it departed. We each froze as we felt the shock and slight tingle of the charge as it passed through us and the rain started to beat hard on the corrugated iron roof. The pole was split and our invaluable telephone was out of action for about a week. The last thing we needed at a critical time!
All through this period our soldiers were departing for UK and, of course, not being replaced. In September our Malay soldiers were discharged and returned to their homes in the North, some as far as Alor Setar. They were sadly missed for their hard work and devotion to we British.
October saw the return of the Detachment from Kalimantan. Some amongst them were highly disgruntled at the lack of work ethic in the locals and the colourful language of the Australians did not impress many. I recall that inflation in Indonesia was rampant at the time. One Singapore Dollar (2s 8d - 13.3 pence today) bought a suitcase full of Sen notes, wrapped roughly in bundles of 100 notes. This applied to all denominations and the paper used was poor quality repulped unbleached newspapers, for one could see the old typefaces under the currency image.
Having checked their stores, they were repacked and returned to the Ordnance Depot or to UK as required, and the procedure of running down the unit continued a pace. The OC, Major Richards, was posted early, roughly 6 weeks prior to the close, which left the newly promoted 2 i/c Major Deane (Dixie) in charge of the final phases.
By early November the camp had begun to take on a deserted feel as non-key personnel returned to the UK. The stores staff remained along with the Squadron Clerk to complete the final administration work after which they departed towards the end of the month.
I am unsure of the actual date of relinquishment and I cannot even remember what day, but from my records my flight date home was Monday 7 December 1970 and it was about a week prior to that when the handover took place. This would place the date at Monday 30 November or Tuesday 1 December 1970 (I can do no better than that).
The last three remaining members of the Squadron, acting OC Major EM Deane RE, WO2 (SSM) Mark Maunder RE and myself Staff Sergeant Colin R Price RE were left to tie up the few remaining tasks and perform the final ceremony.
Air Survey Building
As I remember it, the Depot vehicle served as taxi for the final journey along the North Buona Vista Road to Dover Road when on the final morning, in nervous anticipation of what was about to happen, the three of us paraded on the verandah of the Guard Room at 0900 hours. A few minutes after the allotted hour a Singapore Army truck drew up outside of the open front gates. A very young looking Army Lieutenant alighted from the passenger seat and six or eight soldiers piled out of the rear and lined up. I cannot remember any orders being given; it was all very quiet and subdued. The officer came forward and saluted and we all returned the complement. We then withdrew into the room behind us. Prepared papers were signed and the young officer handed over the token sum of ‘One Singapore Dollar' for the site and its contents. We lowered the Squadron flag and the Army detachment mounted guard as the three of us, somewhat bemused, walked to the connecting door at the rear of the building that was 556 Field Survey Dept and withdrew. The door was locked behind us and that was the end of the history of the proud independent Survey Squadron, numbered 84.
PS. My last days on the island were spent moving out of Married Quarters in Jalan Rumia, Holland Village, which I handed over to an Australian corporal. I took the short journey down the North Buona Vista Road to the Military Families Hostel on the Ayer Rajah Road from where, a few days later on the 7 th December, we flew home to Brize Norton.
PPS. 556 Field Survey Depot RE continued to operate providing map support to the few remaining British Forces and an increasing number of Australians until its close in 1971. I will leave those events to someone else to recall.