The SAS was trying to cover so much ground in Borneo that having the locals onside was vital. The locals were in a tough place. They had the SAS coming in and providing value, with medicinal skills being a main focus of the methods to get the villagers on board.
They also had the Indonesians coming in and creating more of an atmosphere of fear. Morale was low. The risk of locals acting as double agents was real. The SAS could find themselves being shot in the back conducting a hearts and mind mission because the enemy was aware and watching for when they arrived.
SAS Precautions in the Jungle
The SAS took a few precautions when visiting the villages. They had to visit if they wanted the hearts and minds tactic to be successful, but they had to minimise the risk of enemy attacks at the same time. To stay as hidden as possible the patrols would:
- Arrive at the villages unannounced
- Ensure they walked through a stream shortly before entering the village
- Send one man ahead to recce
By arriving unannounced they knew it was harder for the enemy to lie in wait for them. If they had a timetable of areas they were visiting and there were some bad eggs in the village then it could mean being killed. The Indonesians could simply lie in wait, watch them arrive at the pre-agreed time and then shoot them when they had the chance.
By arriving unannounced it would mean it was unlikely the enemy would be sitting and waiting for the SAS to arrive. They wouldn’t have had the patience to wait that long, unlike the Brits who would often sit in an OP for long periods in order to complete a mission.
The tracking was a major problem for the men in the jungle but the SAS were outstanding at it. You had two choices, move fast and be followed or move painstakingly slow but leave no tracks. One way to try to prevent being followed is to utilise streams. By doing this just before entering a village it could keep the enemy unaware of their positions, and ultimately their actions.
One man going alone will always leave fewer tracks, make less noise and be less of a target. One trooper would creep ahead and recce the village they wanted to visit. If enemy troops were spotting in the camp it was easier for one bloke to get away sharpish than a whole patrol.
After going through all this effort just to get into the village, they often didn’t get any information worth the hassle. The locals were not willing to give much information about the Indonesians movements and had been threatened by them to tell of any contacts with the SAS.
SAS Hearts and Minds Tactics
When the villagers had toothaches and septic cuts the medics were soon busy giving treatment to them and this put the villagers a bit more at ease. The SAS would pay the locals to cut landing points. And if the village required anything urgently then the info would be radioed over to base and small presents were handed over before the patrol disappeared back into the jungle again.
The patrol would move as the night closed in where tracking was difficult for even the locals, before getting their heads down. They were off again at first light, heading to another village to continue the hearts and minds work that was vital to victory in this environment.
Usually, within the week the patrol would return to the same village and help out again, building the relationships but never spending a night there.
Security was almost non-existent in the jungle this remote. The troopers were completely tactical and lived as in enemy territory, with no cutting and alertness levels remaining at a maximum at all times.
Building Trust With the Muruts
Over time the trust was built. The Muruts were initially cautious of trusting the SAS and for good reason. If the SAS couldn’t protect them from the Indonesians then it wouldn’t be good to give intel to the troopers only for the enemy to come and attack them for doing so.
When the trust levels had increased, de la Billière (pictured above during the Gulf War) turned up the notch a few levels. He got the Gurkhas on board with enthusiasm and de la Billière explained what his plan was in Peter Dickens’ book:
It was a great game, and we only cheated a little by making sure the Gurkhas and helicopters were at split-second readiness. “Look,” we said to the Muruts, “when you see any sign of the Indos, come and tell us straight away and we’ll use our magic radio box to bring masses of soldiers in to clobber them.” Well that was a bit unconvincing at first so we said, “Let’s try it tomorrow; you pretend you’ve found some footprints, anywhere you like, and see what happens.”
Sure enough, they tried it. But the patrols knew their area in great detail. They knew where the landing points were and where the tracks had been cut so when they said they had found some footprints just south of Bukit Oojah, a hundred Gurkhas were there within an hour or two and the locals were shocked. The jumped on the helicopters after the call and got straight over there to ‘clobber’ the enemy.
This impressed the Muruts lots. They were convinced the British were more efficient. Add to that the presents, payments and medical care and the locals started to change sides to join the British which was a great achievement. All gained through the SAS and their expertise and hard work together with Gurkhas and a cheeky little game played by de la Billière.