Ernie was called up for National Service soon after his 18th birthday and sent to Malaya to fight against communists who were trying to overthrow the government. Malaya was part of the British Empire.
Routine patrols in the jungle were difficult.
?We carried something like 60 lbs on our backs, not easy in that climate and terrain. Some men carried *Bren guns and others, like myself, a rifle. There were few automatic rifles in those days. Most of the officers managed to get an automatic rifle that gave you a considerable advantage. We carried ground sheets, spare clothing and enough food for 4 days. Around our waists we carried 2 high explosive grenades, 2 phosphorous grenades and a bayonet. We also carried an 18 inch machete which was a useful tool in the thick undergrowth. It was unusual for a patrol to last more than 4 days. Long distance patrols were practically useless because you needed so many men. The object in the early days was to get into communist camps that were deep in the mountainous jungle but if men were wounded you couldn?t get them out. Helicopters were not available and in any case, they would have been useless in the jungle. We made coloured smoke signals to contact aeroplanes which would then drop supplies.
When we bivouacked we worked in groups of 3. Each man carried a ground sheet and they were clipped together to make a tent. There would be a downpour every day at 4 o?clock for about an hour ? you could set your clock by it ? so you needed shelter. If you can imagine the heaviest downpour you have seen in this country; that would be a shower there. You could get soaked pretty quickly but with the heat you dried out again in an hour or so.?
Contact with the local population was limited.
?We had trackers with us on patrol from the Iban and Dyak tribes. The Dyaks had been head hunters only a few years before. The Iban lived on the coast but the Dyaks were an inland tribe and they were better. The jungle was their home and they could follow animal or human tracks like a bloodhound would. Dyak trackers were covered in tattoos in intricate patterns from head to foot, and often had sharp animal bones stuck through their noses, and carved wooden or bone earrings. I used to sit and watch them tattoo each other. They did it with a piece of wood with a needle sticking out of one side and soot or charcoal from the fire mixed with water to make ink. All the patterns had a tribal meaning, I believe.
There was no real contact with people living in the jungle because these were forbidden areas. If you came across anyone there you would shoot them because they must be terrorists. You couldn?t wait to ask questions; you may get shot yourself. The Malayans were lovely, friendly people and it?s a beautiful country. The population was mixed ? about 50% Malay, 40% of Chinese descent and 10% Indians. The communists were invariably Chinese. There were a very few Japanese in the jungle left over from World War 11 which had only ended 5 years before. They couldn?t believe the war was over. They stayed there and joined the communists.?
Insect and animal life was a notable feature of life in the jungle.
?We were not only fighting the communist enemy but conditions in the jungle. On one occasion we saw almost a river of ants on the move. These ants are quite large, but on the edge of this ?river? were larger ants ? about 2-2.5 centimetres - that would attack any living thing that got in their way. We spent a restless night hoping they wouldn?t come through our bivouac.
There were also small red ants that infested bushes and if you brushed past them and they fell on you it felt like boiling water. They would be nipping you all over. Mosquitoes, of course, were a constant problem, especially in swamps along the coast.
The mountains went up over 3,000 feet, higher than Ben Nevis and all covered in jungle. Here, leaches were the main problem. They attached themselves to you and sucked your blood. We wore jungle boots that were supposed to be leach proof but you?d be walking along and one of your mates would say, ?Guesty - your boots!? You would look at your boots and they would be red. The leach had got into your boot, sucked your blood and then you had squashed it and blood was oozing out. They would also get attached to your back. One of the routine things we would do is stop every hour for a smoke and a rest. We used to light up a cigarette and touch the leach with the lighted end and they?d fall off. If you tried to pull them off their teeth would still be attached and it could leave a pretty nasty sore afterwards.
There was quite a lot of wildlife such as baboons swinging through the jungle making awful noises. The monkeys screeched when they heard anyone coming which warned the communists but it worked two ways, of course. If the communists were coming in our direction they warned us. But you couldn?t know if the monkeys were warning us or them!?
Some encounters were particularly memorable.
?I had an encounter with a tiger; luckily back at camp at Dingkil. We were stationed at a disused logging camp and I was on guard duty. The camp was surrounded by coils of barbed wire that would keep men out but not a tiger. There was a water tank on four concrete columns and we had filled the bits between the columns with sandbags. This was a favourite place to stop for a crafty smoke. I suppose it was something like 1a.m. As my comrade lit up he said, ?What?s that?? Two lights reflected back from the light of the match. ?There?s somebody out there.? We took cover behind the concrete columns and decided that I would shine a torch at an angle. We were afraid someone might shoot at the torch. Two huge eyes were reflected back. You?ve all seen cats eyes in car headlights. There was this tiger looking at us from behind the barbed wire. Jimmy said, ?Let?s shoot it.? But I said ?No way!? I didn?t want to face a wounded tiger. It was bad enough with one just eying us up. As well as that, if we missed it no one would believe we were defending ourselves from a tiger and if you let a shot off accidently you were immediately fined 21 days pay for being careless. We decided Jimmy would go back to the guard tent for reinforcements. I said, ?Don?t run whatever you do.? The tiger would think he was prey and chase. I watched the tiger. My main concern was that the torch batteries would run out, so I switched it on every minute or two. There was a faint amount of moonlight filtering through the trees and when I could see movement I could tell where it was. It was prowling backwards and forwards along the wire, weighing up what to do. When it stood still I switched the torch on to make sure it wasn?t doing anything silly. After ten minutes Jimmy came back from the guard tent, ?They wouldn?t believe me!? he said. We were told to get back on duty. Luckily for us, the tiger had had enough and decided to go somewhere else.
This had a traumatic effect on me. It had only been 15 yards away prowling up and down. Some years later when I had 3 boys I would wake up in the middle of the night yelling. I was having nightmares that a tiger had jumped over the garden fence and was running through the apple trees for the children. This was a recurring nightmare.
Another incident was at the camp in Dingkil. There was a commotion in the tent next to mine. I went to see what the problem was and there were four baby cobras under one of the beds. They had hatched out from somewhere and got into the tent. Even as small as that they would rear up and their hoods would come up. We beat them with lumps of wood. You didn?t want to wake up with a cobra in your bed. Another thing, when you got up in the morning you never just put your feet in your boots. You always turned them upside down and shook them to see what was in them.?
There was little in the way of entertainment.
?If you were lucky there would be a NAAFI at base camp in Kuala Lumpur where you could get a beer or a meal. At the outposts there was nothing. You could buy a beer from a small beer tent that we organised ourselves and have a sing song. Every two or three months the sergeant would organise a lorry load of us to go down to the beach and have a swim for the day. There were beautiful beaches nearby.?
Ernie became involved in checking villages cleared by the Malay government.
?Another aspect of the fight was laying night-time ambushes because a favourite tactic of the communists was to come out of the camps and threaten the villagers if they did not supply them with food and medicine. Supplying the communists was forbidden by law and you could get the death penalty for it, though I don?t think this was ever applied. The villagers were caught in a cleft stick. They were either shot by the communists because they didn?t supply them or went to prison if they did. Small villages in remote areas were very vulnerable.
So one of the tactics of the Malay government was to clear the area and put the villagers into a compound. They were quite free to come and go but it was protected by the Malay army and the police. They might be subjected to a search when they left to make sure they weren?t surreptitiously supplying the communists.
There was one incident I rememeber. The authorities had cleared the village and after that it was our job to search the houses to see if there were any hidden terrorists or booby traps. We worked in groups of three and carried a clicker, like a dog trainer?s clicker, as a warning if we saw anything. Anyway, we were searching this village and I heard a click, click behind me. My mate said he?d heard a noise from a house. We withdrew as there should have been no one around except some stray dogs who could be rabid and had to be shot. We decided to search this house. It was a typical jungle house, pretty flimsy, built with palm fronds on a wooden frame. The only way was to barge in through the door. Surprise was the essence.
We drew straws to see who would go in. I picked the short straw and had to dive in the door with my two comrades covering me. I said I would cover the right, Jimmy would cover the left and Ginger, who had the Bren gun, would follow us in and back us up. As I went through the door there was this terrific metallic crash that seemed even worse because I was terrified. I saw a movement and went to shoot at it but I heard someone shout, ?Don?t shoot! Don?t shoot!? It was Jimmy who had seen what happened better than me. It was a very old Chinese woman, her face all wrinkled, her hair in a pigtail and dressed in a black pyjama-like outfit. What had happened was she had dropped a cooking pot out of fright as I had gone in. She?d been left behind. We had to search the house. She could have been held hostage for all we knew, but there was no one there. We tried to tell her that she must go to the police. I noticed that she had difficulty in walking and I looked at her feet and they were like little pigs trotters. Her feet had been bound though that had been banned in China many years before. That poor old lady, she had been subjected to foot binding as a child. The agonies she must have gone through with her feet trapped in those wooden clogs and then to almost finish her life by being shot by someone like me. We felt sorry for her; she had been left behind like one of those rabid dogs, completely forgotten. We took care of her and handed her over to the police. I realised later that evening back at camp that today had been my birthday, I was now nineteen.?
Ernie was glad to return home at the end of his service.
?We were there because we had to be. I had no wish to join the army and I think 90% of the men I was with felt the same. 90% of us were National Servicemen. I just wanted to go home. The Cold War was just beginning then and we weren?t as aware of the communist threat as we were later, though the situation was deteriorating rapidly.?
*Bren gun ? A light machine gun
Interview by Fay Breed, Maeve McLaughlin and Rosie Hoskins