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The Malayan Emergency - Jungle Forts And Airstrips

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Subject :The Malayan Emergency - Jungle Forts and Airstrips
Published By : Lift Off Newsletter No 6 Summer 2008, Author Tom Browning 
Location : Malaya
Estimated Year : 2008
Media Type : Article
Source : Tony Tamblyn, UK
Remark :

Writing about his experiences as OC Flying Wing at Kuala Lumpur (The Royal Air Force: A Personal Experience, pp 82-3) Sir Peter Le Cheminant says:

"...the jungle forts acted as bases from which infantry and Police Field Force (PFF) patrols could operate. There were a number in operation in mid-1955, with more under construction, and by the end of 1957 there were nine completed and fully functional. It was a major achievement on the part of the Sappers and I have never seen it recognised as such in any book or journal. Every bit of material, apart from timber, needed to build the airstrips and the living quarters, and to make them secure had to be flown in by helicopter, as did the plant such as bulldozers, diggers and earthmovers.

From what he says it sounds like another case of "if it isn’t written down it will soon be forgotten." And, in response to some not entirely subtle reminders from our Editor, when I at last got round to doing something about it I realised that that is just about what had already happened to me; a mind about as blank as the sheet of paper in front of me. But help was at hand in the shape of Brian Lloyd who, indirectly, led me to making contact with Roy Follows; a distinguished ex-Malayan Police Field Force (PFF) officer, who just happens to be writing a book about Malayan jungle forts. If it is only half as good as his earlier book, The Jungle Beat, which relates his experiences with 4 PFF and as OC Fort Brooke it will be a cracking good read. However I digress.

After contacting Roy, I visited the Royal Engineers Museum at Chatham. Although the Sappers (Royal Engineers) had done most of the hard work building the forts - and airstrips - their records of it seem to consist of four pages in the Malaya section of their History of the Corps of Royal Engineers, Vol X, 1945-60, pp 187-190 which deals with the jungle forts, and two reports by Lt K W Newham RE, a national service officer who spent three months (7 April - 2 July 1954) constructing the airstrip at Fort Shean.

Before this, the RE History tells us, forts were:

"...maintained entirely by helicopter and by airdrop, which was both precarious and uneconomical..."

Now although we all know what a good job our choppers did in Malaya, it may surprise you to know that not everyone shares this view: the fixed wing union was even more dominant back then.

So much had been expected of the Whirlwinds (and Sycamores), especially after the first generation Dragonflies, that their relatively disappointing performance (particularly when compared to 848’s seemingly more successful, lighter, Sikorsky built Mk 21 Whirlwinds) was 'grist to the mill' of those who were convinced that no good could ever come of the helicopter - or, as related many years later by one of the first 194 Sqn flight commanders to one of the last, words to that effect. So when Brigadier W F Anderson, the senior Royal Engineer at Malaya Command HQ, suggested in late 1953 that the forts could be maintained more economically if provided with an airstrip capable of operating fixed wing aircraft - like the Scottish Aviation Pioneer CC Mk 1, which was to enter service in Malaya with 267 Squadron in February 1954 - it was readily accepted.

Considered to be the easiest and most accessible, Forts Kamar and Shean, were chosen to be the first to have airstrips. The RE History says that a working party was flown in to Kamar by helicopter and given authority to hire local aborigines as manual labourers using only hand tools. 848 Squadron's Whirlwinds were used for these first airlifts but, unfortunately, there seems to be no reference to them in the squadron’s record. They do, however, refer to WV198 taking airfield construction parties to Forts Dixon and Shean on 7 April 1954"...preparatory to a tractor lift."

Whilst Fort Dixon’s D4 bulldozer was to be taken 20 miles up river and over several rapids in one ton loads by dug-out canoe, Fort Shean’s was, in its way, to be more trailblazing. A Ferguson tractor was successfully broken down into seven helicopter portable loads and flown into Fort Shean by WV198 on 13/14 April - the first operation of its kind. 848’s records say that it took "...approx 8 sorties." Lt Newham, though, is convinced that the job took seven sorties over two days: three the first day and, after delay by bad weather, four the next. Whatever... by the time the last 600 lbs load was flown in the tractor had been assembled and was already being tested.

"After 11 weeks of unbroken work..." the first Pioneer landed at Fort Shean’s 200 yard long airstrip on 22 June. On 8 August 1954 Pioneer XE514 became the first to crash whilst landing at Fort Shean. The pilot and passengers were evacuated by an old stalwart - WV198.

After the initial tractor lift to Fort Shean it became common place to fly the eventual fleet of five Fergusons and eight Fordsons from fort to fort. There were exceptions: three dozers took over two weeks to ‘walk’ to Fort Langkap which, incidentally, had been a Force 136 drop zone in WW2, whilst Forts Brooke and Sinderut never had airstrips and remained dependent upon airdrops and helicopters for their maintenance and resupply.

The History of the Corps of Royal Engineers says that by 1956/7:

‘In all, twelve Pioneer airstrips were built for jungle forts at distances of up to thirty miles from road or rail-head...’

Sir Peter puts the number of forts (with or without airstrips) as nine by the end of his second, June 1955 - November 1957, tour: say ten if you include Fort Tapong which was not completed until 1959/60. As far as I can make out these, in alphabetical order, were the jungle forts :

  • Fort Brooke (VE 38 83):

    No airstrip. Named after Lt Col Oliver Brooke DSO, MBE of 22 SAS.

  • Fort Chabai (VE 50 20):

    Although 848 NAS took two tractors from Chabai to Gua Musang on 16 - 17 Sep 1955, the airstrip was not completed until 1956/7.

  • Fort Dixon (VK 70 44):

    Tractor delivered by dug-out canoes after airfield construction party had been positioned on 7 Apr 1954.

  • Fort Iskandar (WR 24 86):

    An airstrip existed at the police post in 1949, but both were abandoned in 1951. It is claimed that a new airstrip and police post (fort) were built in 1953 - but this seems too soon for the airstrip bearing in mind the airstrip programme didn’t begin until April 1954. On 21 Mar 1955 three 848 NAS Whirlwinds flew in a dismantled 25 pdr gun - claimed as another helicopter ‘first’. ‘From a pilot’s point of view, by far the easiest of the jungle strips’ - according to OC Flying Wing RAF KL.

  • Fort Kemar (VE 27 45):

    Although the airstrip was largely built using manual labour, a tractor was flown in by 848 NAS to compact the surface. Pioneer XJ450 was “...tipped over and written off”...after encountering a squall whilst landing on 4 Oct 1960.

  • Fort Langkap (WQ 17 60):

    Claimed to have been a Force 136 dropping zone (DZ) during WW2 and, afterwards, cultivated and used by the terrorists (CTs) before having a fort and airstrip constructed. The RE History mistakenly places the location around VK 54 56 (Johore Grid).

  • Fort Legap (VE 12 13):

    Tractor flown in by WV 192 in seven sorties on 22 May 1954. The tightest and most impressive of the strips’ - according to OC Flying Wing, RAF KL.

  • Fort Selim (VK 12 69):

    Described as a new fort in Dec 1954 when it started acting as a Sycamore fly-trap: XE314’s pilot and two passengers being recovered to Ipoh by 848’s WV190 on 7 Dec 1954; whilst XE316 crashed during approach on 30 Jan ’55.

  • Fort Shean (VK 54 31):

    The first to have a tractor flown in (see account above). On 15 Apr 1957 a second Pioneer, XG563, was written off after the undercarriage collapsed after landing.

  • Fort Sinderut (VK 48 50 est):

    Like Fort Brooke, Sinderut remainded without an airstrip.

  • Fort Tapong (QZ 23 03):

    The last of the ‘Emergency’ forts, it now lies beneath a reservoir. (Our database editor adds: "This airstrip was built entirely by hand - see link below")

  • Fort Telanok (VK 46 50):

    First known as Net when 848 NAS’s WV191 crashed here on 30 May 1954. On 17 Jun 1954 WV194 carried out a tractor lift from Fort Shean to Fort Net. A report dated 8 July 1954 refers to two 848 NAS Whirlwinds carrying out an exchange of the garrison at Telanok rather than Net.

  • Well, that accounts for twelve forts - although two were airstrip-less. 848 NAS records refer to a thirteenth:

  • Fort Hardcastle (VD 85 44)

  • Where, on 2 Mar 1953 twenty Gurkhas were flown in and an aborigine, who had been mauled by a bear, flown out as a casevac. It is possible that this was not an established fort but, rather, a major landing site/zone which temporarily adopted the code-name of a particular operation. As we started off by saying, "if it isn’t written down it will soon be forgotten". So any more information about Hardcastle, or any other of the forts, will be very welcome.

    Despite the economies that were claimed following the construction of fort airstrips in Malaya, helicopters were still essential when it came to trooplift and casevac (Casualty Evacuation) missions in and out of deep jungle - even if the official line was that they should only be used when no other means were available. Nor should it be forgotten that whilst airstrips were necessities for the original Pioneers and subsequent Twin-pins, they were not essential for the helicopters although there is no doubt that they made life easier for them.

    Curiously, though, even today there are still never enough helicopters to meet the operational demands made upon them. So, I guess, after all those years nothing much has really changed.

    Lift Off editor comments:

    “An impressive piece of research, Tom, but what of Fort Betau and Betis? I have both in my log book, albeit in 1959/60. There is also a Fort Lebau listed on the Internet, whereas Fort Sinderut does not receive a mention on the www, although I know that was there as I have photos of it burning once it had been abandoned.”

    Lift Off is the newsletter of Helicopter Operations (Malayan Emergency) Association. 

    (Our database editor adds: "Roy Follows has just provided us with an excellent explanation, confirming that there were 12 official forts as above and a number of short-term temporary or "pseudo" forts". See the link below.)

    To read Roy Follows' clarification of the number of forts, click here.

    To read more about Fort Brooke, click here.

    To read more about Fort Chabai, click here.

    To read more about Fort Dixon, click here.

    To read more about Fort Kemar and its Orang Asli Police Guards, click here.

    To read more about Fort Legap, click here.

    To read more about Fort Shean, click here.

    To read about the building of Fort Tapong airstrip, click here.

    Filename : 20090624-008