Wars, Battles & Campaigns

Ayo Gurkhali!

Seldom in the history of warfare has an enemy so won the admiration of its opponents that it gets invited to join them. The 19th century redcoats recognised a kindred spirit and the bond between the Gurkhas of Nepal and the British army has remained unbroken ever since. Here is one example of the Gurkha fighting spirit.

In 1815, the British East India Company sought to expand its rule and marched into the Kingdom of Gorkha (Nepal). The fierce fighting that followed with neither side gaining the upper hand resulted in a peace treaty being signed plus an agreement allowing Gurkha soldiers to serve in the Company’s army. The agreement continued when this army was taken over by the British government.

Since then the Gurkhas have served alongside their British comrades in all the nation’s conflicts from the Sikh Wars to both world wars, Hong Kong, Malaya, Cyprus, the Falklands, Kosovo and on to Iraq and Afghanistan, earning the respect of all who served with them. Their stoicism in the face of adversity, their sense of humour, their delight in inviting British comrades to join their campfires and share their “Gurkha Tea”, a concoction laced with condensed milk to which they were universally addicted, all added to the bond between the two fighting races.

In addition to their service rifles, they carry their traditional 18 inch long curved fighting knife, the Kukri with which they can behead an enemy with a single stroke.

Anyone who has served with these quiet and honourable men will know of their loyalty and kindness coupled with their utter fearlessness in battle, summed up by  Field Marshall Sam Maneckshaw who wrote, “If a man says he is not afraid of dying, he is either lying or is a Gurkha”.

In the early 1960s, a new state was created in South East Asia when Malaya joined Singapore and the British Protectorates of Brunei, Sabah and Sarawak, (collectively known as British Borneo), to form the Federation of Malaysia. This did not please President Sukarno the ruler of neighbouring Indonesia whose Kalimantan territory in southern Borneo shared a thousand mile border with the protectorates and who wanted to extend his rule over the whole island.

The population of British Borneo was mainly indigenous Dayak tribesmen, plus a minority of Chinese, Malay and Indonesian settlers, not all of whom were content under British rule. Sukarno’s troops encouraged rebellion and trained the rebels, now calling themselves the North Kalimantan National Army, and sent them across the border to start a guerrilla campaign against the federation.

On the 8th December 1962, these forces staged an insurrection in Brunei, attempting to seize the Sultan and take over the oil fields. The British responded swiftly and sent Gurkha troops from the garrison in Singapore to crush the uprising. These forces very quickly restored order and within 30 hours had secured Brunei town and rescued the Sultan. Within another two weeks Britain’s Far East Command could claim that all the rebels had been killed or captured.

Shortly afterwards Indonesia announced that it would pursue a policy of confrontation and stepped up its raids across the border, Britain responded by sending five UK and Gurkha infantry battalions to the island, plus an armoured car squadron. They also deployed members of the SAS and SBS to patrol the border and monitor Indonesian infiltration. These forces were later joined by units from Australian and New Zealand and Malaya.

Sukarno sent more and more men across the border to raid and disrupt and the fighting developed into many small scale, but bitter engagements. The mountainous terrain and the thick rainforest meant that patrolling could only be carried out on foot or on the many rivers that cut through the forest. It became a battle for hearts and minds, each side attempting to gain the support of the local villagers in their jungle longhouses, the Brits treated them with respect and gave medical help to sick villagers while Indonesians used threats and demanded that no help be given to the British and Gurkha patrols, carrying out terrible atrocities on the Dayaks if they refused. This treatment eventually had the opposite effect and drove the locals to support the government forces, supplying food and information to the patrols.

Acting on this information, the 2nd Battalion of the 10th Gurkhas were tasked with destroying a number of Indonesian camps along the Sungei Koemba river. A Company under the command of Lieutenant Kit Maunsell was despatched by river to Serikin in the Bau district of Sarawak to check on reports of enemy activity in the area. After establishing a base in a small harbour, Maunsell led a patrol into the rainforest to seek out a suspected enemy position and stumbled upon a large Indonesian force entrenched on top of a steep hill with a larger force sited on another hill some 500 yards away.

Maunsell returned to the patrol base and made plans to attack the enemy bases.  Due to their positioning he decided to firstly attack the smaller force on the hilltop by stealth and, if possible, overwhelm it before the larger enemy force became aware of the main assault.

To give covering fire to the initial assault on the hilltop, he sent two platoons to distract the second enemy position while a 16 man platoon, led by Lance Corporal Rambahadur Limbu crawled silently up the steep ridge towards the summit. It took over an hour to reach the first enemy machine gun post and the platoon crept forward intending to kill the sentries silently, but just yards from the pit they were seen and the machine gunner opened fire wounding one of the Gurkhas.

With all chances of a silent approach ended, Limbu rushed forward and destroyed the machine gun with a grenade. The enemy were now fully alerted and Maunsell ordered the main assault on the hilltop to begin. Shouting their blood curdling battle cry, “Ayo Gurkhali”, (the Gurkhas are coming!) they moved forward. The Gurkhas destroyed another machine gun pit and cleared the enemy from some huts, but by now resistance was increasing. Maunsell ordered a charge to clear the other weapon pits which though successful, cost the life of one Gurkha and wounded another.

On the left flank another machine gun was holding up the advance and under covering fire from a two man bren gun crew, Limbu again charged forward and destroyed it with grenades. The three men rushed forward and jumped over the destroyed weapons pit, but the gunner had sufficient life in him to open fire, wounding both of the bren gun crew before himself being killed by Limbu. The Gurkha then went back and carried both bren gunners to safety under intense fire. He went back a third time to retrieve the bren gun and provided covering fire for the final stages of the assault killing four more Indonesians as they attempted to escape.

The fight had lasted over an hour and the enemy had been cleared from the hill. However increased fire from the other enemy position forced Maunsell to begin withdrawing his men and they moved off down the hill and back to base in the darkness. Gurkha losses were three killed and two wounded against 24 enemy dead and an unknown number of wounded. Rambahadur Limbu was awarded the Victoria Cross for his brave action. Total Gurkha losses during the six year confrontation were 43 killed and 87 wounded.

The Gurkha soldier with his motto, “Better to die than live a coward” has been awarded 26 Victoria Crosses in the last one hundred and eighty five years.

A fitting epitaph to these brave men can be found in the words of one of their Commanding Officers, writing of them after the carnage of the First World War:

As I write these words my thoughts return to you who were my comrades, the stubborn and indomitable peasants of Nepal. Once more I hear the laughter with which you greet every hardship. Once more I see you in your bivouacs, or about your fires, or on forced marches, or in your trenches now shivering with wet and cold, now scorched by pitiless and burning sun. Uncomplaining you endure hunger, thirst and wounds and at the last, your unwavering lines disappear into the smoke and wrath of battle. Bravest of the brave, most generous of the generous, never had a country more faithful friends than you.

Generations of British soldiers who served and fought with these gallant men will echo these sentiments and share the dishonour felt by many at their shabby treatment by a British government quite willing to have them die for us, but not willing to reward them for their sacrifice. It is only after a much publicised campaign by Joanna Lumley that some restricted Rights of Abode have been granted to them on completion of service, but the scandal of reduced pensions lives on.

Jim Keys
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Jim Keys

Since his retirement Jim Keys has indulged his passion for history, writing two books on Britain’s past: The Dark Ages and The Bloody Crown. He is currently writing the last of the trilogy, Fighting Brits which covers Britain’s military struggles from the Armada to Afghanistan.

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