Being brave means knowing that when you fail, you don’t fail forever.
– Lana Del Rey, American singer-songwriter
At 6am on December 12, four days after Limbang was taken, Captain Jeremy Moore of ‘L’ company of the Royal Marines led a mission to recapture Limbang.
Deployed from the HMS Albion, the commandos arrived in two cargo lighters — one of them carrying a Vickers machine gun.
To save the prisoners held by the rebels Moore sailed up the Limbang river, and then launched an attack on the town directly.
This was a surprise to the rebels who planned to execute their hostages.
As the sound of their engines alerted the rebels, Sgt Salleh Sambas was warned of the arrival of British reinforcements.
Manning PC Bisop Kunjan’s machine gun, two marines were killed in the initial burst. Three others were subsequently killed.
In reply, the commandos opened fire with the Vickers gun.
Said Bisop: “Looking back I should have disabled the Bren gun before we surrendered to the rebels.
“I never thought the same weapon would be used by Salleh to kill our saviours.”
By 11am the commandos had recaptured Limbang, killing 10 rebels and seizing the Bren gun.
Salleh was injured but managed to escape but was captured weeks later.
The following day he became the interpreter for 42 commandos as an interpreter for the remaining rebels.
“There was no time for rest as we went to Bangar in Limbang and Bukit Let in Brunei. It was a time I will never forget,” added Bisop.
Two British corporals were awarded military medals, while Captain Moore was awarded a bar for his Military Cross.
Captain Moore went on to command the British forces during the Falklands war while Jeremy
Black, the Royal Navy officer who commanded one of the lighters, later became Captain of HMS Invincible.
After this action L Company became known as ‘Limbang Company’.
In all, five British commandos — Sgt W. G. Macfarlane and Royal Marines R. D. Formoy, Richard Jennings, F. S. Powell and Gerald Kiers — were killed.
Four Sarawak policemen lay dead, and several others wounded — a heavy price for their courage and conviction.
In follow up operations, 619 Green Jackets, Marines, Queen’s Royal Irish Hussars, and Gurkha signallers together with five Ferrets and tons of stores sailed from Singapore to Bekenu in Sarawak where the rebels had fled for a last stand.
By April, 350 rebels out of the estimated 1,800 insurgents had either surrendered or been captured.
In Sarawak, 19 policemen, civil servants and civilians were awarded police medal for gallantry, Colonial Police Medal for meritorious service, Queens Medal for chiefs, Queens Commendation for brave conduct and Certificate of Honour.
The recipients came from the Malay, Iban and Orang Ulu communities involved in the action battle as well as follow-up operations.
Top on the list was Sgt Bisop Kunjan, Corporal Saini Bakar, Corporal Muling Kasau, senior Inspector Julaihi Hanaffie, Penghulu Ngang Bundan, Abang Omar Abang Samaudin, Gawan Jangga,
Temenggong Oyong Lawai Jau, Penghulu Arin, Penghulu Gau, Penghulu Balan Lejou, Penghulu Kebing, Penghulu Baya Malang, Tuai Rumah Pasang Batoh, Mervyn William Swyny, Paul Ho Huan, Bujang anak Nyuin and Bario’s Lian Inspector Tapang (Bala Palaba).
On August 3, 1962, a Limbang memorial was conducted at the waterfront by Sarawak Governor Sir Alexander Waddell.
On July 2003 Sir Jeremy Moore and some of the former members of the 42 commandos returned to Limbang to meet Haji Salleh and some of his rebels in a unique “atonement” ceremony.
During this time, I had visited Limbang numerous times, initially to write the ‘inside story’ about Swiss environmentalist Bruno Manser in 1986 after which I was commissioned to write another book by Datuk Amar James Wong Kim Min on northern Sarawak.
Entitled ‘Crown Jewel of the North’ (2006) I spent at least 35 years exploring both the Limbang and Lawas divisions — covering Wong’s concession in criss-crossing over 200km of timber country to Ba Kelalan and across the border to Kerayan in Kalimantan Utara.
In an exclusive interview with Haji Salleh, then 73, in 2002 he told me: “We were opposed to the formation of Malaysia and considered Limbang to be part of Brunei.
“About 1,000 of us were armed only with shotguns, spears, parangs and catapults when we stormed the police station.
However, after the British arrived, we could not match their firearms and fled in all directions. I hid in Temburong (Brunei) for six months.”
Haji Salleh was sentenced to 25 years in jail, but it was reduced to 15 years. Following his release in 1972, he was appointed penghulu (headman) of the Kedayan community.
In 1974 Haji Salleh and the rebels were given a 100-acre parcel of land for ‘rehabilitation’ called Kampung Pahlawan (Village of the Warriors!)
The colonial government praised the brave policemen as a “splendid example of good morale, devotion to duty, and aggressive spirit”.
Even though they never had a chance to match the overwhelming numbers they showed great bravery until the bitter end.
Even so, Bisop felt that the policemen who sacrificed their lives were not appropriately remembered, unlike the British commandos.
“We lost four men in the intense fighting and the British five, in a short exchange. The British still hold special memorials for their fallen heroes, but the Malaysian government has done much for our friends who died for the country.
The views expressed here are those of the columnist and do not necessarily represent the views of New Sarawak Tribune.