Thomson had been peering around the side of the bamboo clump for ten minutes. He had to be careful, to ensure no enemy was there. Nothing had changed from the previous day, it was clear.
He turned to look at Lillico, received a nod and proceeded to lift the bamboo, stepping out into the open.
His world exploded in front of him. Fuck. What was going on? Thomson had soil spitting up into his face as the air transformed from silence to mayhem.
The SAS trooper saw an Indonesian soldier laying down by a tree 10 metres to his front. He had a light automatic weapon and was firing right at him.
The enemy lifted his weapon and fired. Thomson was hit and it threw him behind a rock. Blood was pouring from a wound to his left thigh and hitting him in his face. Blood shouldn’t be doing that. It should be staying in your body, moving the oxygen around to your limbs and your brain. This was bad. Even when you have a wound, if it’s not a serious wound the blood would seep. This wasn’t seeping, it was squirting onto his cheeks. He had to try to get up but on doing so he saw another Indo sit up as well, only this one was close enough to him to smell his breath.
Thomson spotted a tiger head shoulder flash in enough detail to realise he was close enough to stab him should he have had his bayonet. He looked for his Armalite and dropped the enemy with a burst of the weapon that was still set to automatic. That was him taken care of but how many more were there? Would more keep popping up everytime I move?
He knew he had to move or there was a good chance he would be shot again. There was a major problem though. He was bleeding. And not just a little bit. Lots. Being medically trained he knew that when he saw the femoral artery spraying blood feet away from him, instead of seeing a leg there, he was in big trouble. Trouble that would make it easier for the enemy to spot him. Trouble that would make it easier for his life to end right here, on the floor of the jungle.
Thomson crawled backwards, he’d spotted some cover behind a clump of jungle foliage. The cover was good. Cover avoided trouble, for now. He applied a tourniquet to stop the bleeding before taking a shot of morphine. This would help to slow his heart rate and therefore the bleeding.
Checking the Situation
It was time to evaluate the scene. Double fuck. The enemy hit Eddie “Geordie” Lillico as well. Lillico was covered in blood but was pale. This wasn’t good.
When Thomson had moved to the left of the bamboo, Lillico went right. He felt like he received a kick up the arse or knocked into something. Whatever it was it knocked him down. He was getting the rounds down to help Thomson suppress the enemy during the original contact.
Lillico was now completely immobile, but alive. Thomson took out his assailant so he had a chance to catch his breath. Lillico opened his eyes and saw Thomson making his way over to him. They were both alive and it was time to make a plan.
The rounds were still coming in, branches and foliage falling around them as they fought to keep the enemy back. They were prone which was handy because neither could really walk anywhere so Thomson checked the tree where he saw the guy emptying his weapon at them. He saw another enemy soldier come out from the dense jungle.
Lillico gifted him a double tap and the guy dropped. “Can you make it back to the RV?” He asked Thomson, knowing he was injured and the RV was about 1400 metres to their rear, it was a big ask. To get back there meant to get the rest of the patrol that was waiting. “Sure,” Thomson said.
Splitting the Patrol
The rest of the patrol was waiting at the RV to keep noise to a minimum. The slightest sound in the jungle can alert the enemy to your presence and their enemy knew this jungle well. It was their environment. Four of the patrol, Thomson, Lillico and two others went forward to check the camp for enemy activity.
The main task was to head three miles over the border to keep watch on the River Sekayan. This was February 1965 so the Borneo campaign was well underway. The patrol stumbled upon the camp the previous day. The camp had a clearing that stood out in the thick jungle for obvious reasons. Despite seeing it was empty, proper checks were required. They were back today and heading into the clearing when Ian Thomson’s world went to shit.
Thomson started to make his way back as Lillico kept watch. He saw movement in front of him, not one, not two but three enemies came out. Lillico opened up again. He took down the first two, supported by heavy fire from Thomson from a little way back. The third managed to get into the undergrowth where he was well hidden, taking advantage of the jungle to hide in the same way his rival was facing him just yards away.
Getting Into Cover Himself
Lillico managed to drag himself under some bamboo where he would be better hidden. He checked himself over. Why don’t my legs work? Bad thoughts raced through his mind. He saw an entry hole in front of the left hip. It had damaged the sciatic nerve and taken away the feeling in his left leg. It had then travelled and ripped his arse cheek open when exiting, meaning no working muscle there and no movement from his right leg either.
Lillico waited as Thomson made his way back to the RV. Hours passed and nobody came. Not Thomson, not the rest of the patrol but luckily not the enemy either. There was six enemy by his count, lying dead or badly wounded in the area. Their colleagues must surely try to come to get them at some point. Lillico kept the enemy heads down when he did spot movement with the odd double tap. How long this would continue successfully he didn’t know. Would he have enough ammo for more enemy soldiers arriving to collect bodies? Surely they would search the area fully if they did come? He would be found then, that’s for sure unless Thomson arrived with help first.
There was a slight problem with the plan of Thomson heading back to the RV. He hadn’t actually started making his way back very far. He travelled a short distance when he turned to help Lillico in the contact with three enemy soldiers. After that, he waited. He waited thinking Lillico was going to make his way to meet him.
He called out. Hearing nothing he called out again, louder. Nothing. He continued to wait, unsure of how long he was there for, thinking that Lillico must be on his way, but not wanting to shout out any louder in case it alerted the enemy.
Time to Get Moving On Your Own
Thomson started crawling. He pulled himself by grabbing whatever he could on the floor and heaved himself along. He applied a tourniquet when he was first hit. Now he needed to stop regularly to loosen it. This would prevent gangrene but he’d need to redo it before moving on again.
He was exhausted. He found a pig hole, took some morphine and waited for night-time before taking another shot. Lillico had also started to crawl. He, like Thomson, also found a pig hole and there he rested for the night, completely drained of energy. The two of them not far from each other in the grand scheme of things but at the same time so far away from each other. Neither of them knew where the other one was. They were both very badly injured with no idea of how long they would be before getting help.
They had to keep trying to make their way back to the RV. When the first contact occurred the two rear soldiers in the patrol had followed SOP’s and that was the shoot and scoot technique. This is where the patrol would get some heavy fire down and then retreat. The men were told to leave teammates behind if they were hit but they surely thought Thomson and Lillico were dead by now.
Contact With Base
The four patrol members back at the RV had contacted base and reported the situation. Major Roger Woodiwiss, at the base in Kuching, had requested some infantry back up to search for the two injured men and also for the Royal Air Force to start searching from the sky. This would be almost impossible to do successfully with such dense jungle below but they had to try.
The infantry regiment on hand was the 1st Battalion of the 6th Gurkha Rifles, who may be hard to distinguish from the enemy unless they were close, which could be dangerous. The Gurkha’s had thought about this so they had turned their hats inside out to reveal a red band to make them more identifiable. They knew the two injured soldiers would be wary of any troops that were in the area so they also took six SAS troops with them. With the SAS troopers leading, the hope was they were spotted first and not shot at.
The enemy almost saw Lillico at one point. They were having a coffee break. One man climbed a tree and scouted the area, seeming to stare at Lillico, who duly filled his pants I can only imagine, until the man looked away and didn’t raise the alarm.
Avoiding Rescue to Help Others
Lillico had a search and rescue beacon (Sarbe) on him but showed great courage by not turning it on when the helicopter came overhead and with the enemy close. It would have risked their lives to come and rescue him and that’s a fucking brave shout if ever I’ve seen one, to sit, bleeding, alone in the jungle and not call for help in case it put your mates at risk. That’s what Lillico was about though.
Thomson meanwhile was still crawling, still hitting the shots of morphine, and still in a lot of pain. He reached the RV and was saddened to see his and Lillico’s bergan’s side by side where they left them. The rest of the patrol was nowhere.
It was almost the second evening and he continued to crawl some more before resting under some bushes near a stream. He pretty much gave up with continuing to hide and fired three shots in the air. That should alert the Indos. He saw a soldier getting closer. This could be the enemy coming for him at last. He lifted his weapon and aimed.
They’re Getting Closer
He paused, just for a fraction of a second. He saw a red band along the hat of the soldier and this made him think long enough to realise they were friendly forces. Help at last. Relief ran over him. But what about Lillico?
Lillico was still alone. Still crawling, hoping to see some friendly faces. He was trying to get to a ridge that he could see for a better view. It was risky. The enemy could spot him. He knew it was unlikely he could survive another night with no medical treatment, especially as a storm was now approaching.
Then he heard it. The deep roar of a helicopter that was clear even through the thunder from the storm that had closed in on his location.
Flying Officer David Collinson was flying around for two days searching for the missing soldiers. The Gurkhas had called to request an evacuation for Thomson and he was straight there. He couldn’t get to them, the jungle was too dense to use the winch-cable to hook him up.
Getting Picked Up
Collinson flew out again and again. After some time he made a nineteenth pass and this time Lillico’s Sarbe was close enough to be heard. He was determined to get down to the men. The daring pilot finally managed to get low enough for Lillico to hook himself up be hoisted to safety.
The crew winched him in and informed him that the Gurkhas had Thomson and that he was OK but he couldn’t get him winched up.
The Gurkhas carried Thomson on a stretcher to a clearing where they could get access to be picked up. Although it wasn’t the ideal result they were alive after playing a risky game.
Maybe they shouldn’t have revisited the camp but they did, it had to be done, and they killed some enemy and all came out of it alive. It’s what the best special forces units do.
Lillico was awarded the Military Medal and Thomson a Mention in Dispatches. Lillico continued his career in the SAS. Thomson remained in the Army for a while but then left to find his way in another world. He had one leg a bit shorter than the other from his injuries.
Eddie Lillico passed away in 2016, aged 83 and received full military honours. I couldn’t find recent news regarding Ian Thomson.
Heroes till the end, it takes a special man to do what these two guys did. We are lucky to have them on our side.