The SAS was trying to cover so much ground in Borneo. Having the locals onside was vital. The locals were in a tough place. They had the SAS coming in – providing value – with medicinal skills being a main focus of the methods to get the villagers on board.
They also had Indonesians coming in and creating 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 had been tipped off about their arrival.
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 plan 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 shoot them when they had the chance.
By arriving unannounced it would mean it was unlikely the enemy would be waiting for them to arrive. They wouldn’t have 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 SAS faced the difficulty of tracking in the jungle but they were outstanding at it. They had two choices. The men could move fast and be followed or move painstakingly slow but leave no tracks. One way to prevent being followed is to utilise streams. 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. He will make less noise and be less of a target. One trooper would creep ahead and recce the village they were visiting. 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 valuable information. The locals weren’t willing to give much information about the Indonesians 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 treating them. This put the villagers a bit more at ease. The SAS paid the locals to cut landing points for faster access. If the village required anything urgently then the information would be radioed over to their base and small gifts were handed over before the patrol disappeared back into the jungle.
The patrol would move as night closed in where tracking was difficult for even the locals. Then they could sleep. They were off again at first light, heading to another village to continue the hearts and minds work that was vital in this environment.
Usually, within the week the patrol would return to the same village and help out again. They would build the relationships but never spend a night there.
Security was almost non-existent in the jungle this remote. The troopers were completely tactical. They were living in enemy territory, with alertness levels at a maximum at all times.
Building Trust With the Muruts
The SAS developed trust over time. The Muruts were initially cautious of trusting the SAS. This was understandable. If the SAS couldn’t protect them from the Indonesians then it wouldn’t be good to give intelligence 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 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.”
The locals tried it. But the patrols knew their area in great detail. They knew where the landing points were. They knew 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 a couple of hours and the locals were shocked.
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 with Gurkhas and a cheeky little game played by de la Billière.