The situation looked grim for the soldiers of B Company, 2nd Battalion, of Britain’s Parachute Regiment on April 27, 1965. In the pitch darkness of night, the 36 men were ambushed in the deep jungle of Borneo by a battalion-sized force of elite Indonesian soldiers.
“The position we’d taken up was completely unsuitable from a military point of view,” Company Sergeant Major John S. Williams, whose actions turned the tide of the battle, later recalled in an oral history published by Max Arthur in “Men of the Red Beret.” “For a start, it was only 1,000 yards from the border, so that everything we did was overlooked. It was also rat-infested and overgrown.”
Nicknamed the “Red Devils,” the men of the Parachute Regiment have been renowned for their bravery and skill in combat since the regiment was first formed during World War II. “Their duty lies in the van of the battle: they are proud of this honor and have never failed in any task,” wrote Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery, Colonel Commandant of the Parachute Regiment. “They have the highest standards in all things, whether it be skill in battle or smartness in the execution of all peacetime duties. They have shown themselves to be as tenacious and determined in defense as they are courageous in attack. They are, in fact, men apart–every man an Emperor.” Known for their distinctive maroon-red beret, the elite Paras have continuously been recognized among Britain’s finest soldiers.
The Paras deployed to Borneo in 1965 in response to the looming threat of an Indonesian invasion of the Malaysian Federation. After completing jungle warfare training in Singapore, the 2nd Battalion was divided, with C Company going to assist the Special Air Service (SAS) in the jungles and the remainder of the troops moving into the border area on March 12, 1965.
“During this period, [Indonesian President] Sukarno felt in his dreams that he had to make the big, bold move, and if he could make it and succeed he reckoned that the emerging Malaysia would come over to his side,” Williams remembered.
The men established bases and patrolled heavily to foil infiltration attempts by the Indonesian army. “Our modus operandi was 10 days out on patrol and then 36 hours in base. During those 36 hours we still had to defend our base,” Williams said, adding that “the pressure was very much on. It was killing.
“Our goal was to get the guys to the peak of physical fitness, maintain it, then ask them not to eat cooked food, drink tea, smoke or speak for 10 days,” he recalled.
Due to their formidable reputation, the Paras became an appealing target for Sukarno’s forces. “Subsequently, we heard that Sukarno thought that a victory against the Paras would be the coup that would really make headlines,” said Williams.
A tense waiting period followed in which British patrols became aware of increased enemy activity before the storm finally broke on April 27. The Indonesians launched a surprise attack at night during the 36-hour changeover at B Company’s base at Plaman Mapu. The base was manned by a group of young recruits, whose platoon commander and sergeant were away. There were 36 men facing the onslaught.
Preparing to go to sleep, Williams had removed his shirt when the enemy attacked with mortars, machine guns and rockets. “I bounded out of bed. It was pitch black, blinding with rain. It was a monsoon, so it was pissing down.”
The British position had been split into a ‘Y’ shape, with a GPMG (general-purpose machine gun) positioned on each open side. The enemy had deliberately targeted one segment of the position to soften it up for a breakthrough. The British machine gunner in that sector was hit with three bullets to the head; still alive but “completely deranged,” he aimed a rifle at Williams at pointblank range. The latter managed to guide the man into the command post and thus avoid getting killed by friendly fire.
Realizing they were about to be overrun, Williams attempted to organize the men. They had a mortar section with two mortars, signals, a medic and an artillery forward observer among them. However, attempts at cohesive resistance soon began to crumble amid the massive attack. A group rallying to mount a counterattack and a cook corporal who set off illuminating flares were all knocked out of action by enemy mortar rounds.
Apart from another machine gunner holding out in one area, “all the rest were going down, so I thought there’s only one thing that’s going to get them out and that’s the GPMG,” Williams remembered. “I ran across, got a hold of it and banged half a dozen belts on.”
As Williams mowed down enemy fighters, the Paras were able to reorganize and pin the attacking force down in a gully. Williams drew the enemy’s attention and became a target himself. Indonesian soldiers surged forward, firing AK-47s. Williams dispatched one enemy soldier closing in on him with a rocket launcher.
“The enemy now really switched on… They realized where the firing was coming from and launched a platoon attack on me and the gun pit,” he said. “I was just firing away … but they still kept coming and coming. One of the enemy was only two yards from my gun before he died. He’d been wounded twice in the thigh in the first assault and had tied a tourniquet round it.”
Williams managed to rescue the wounded when another Para took over his gun. After moving the wounded men inside the relative safety of the command post, Williams distributed a restock of ammunition. By then about 15 Paras were left standing. The small group of men managed to beat back another Indonesian assault and even sallied forth to drive remaining enemy troops from the perimeter before reinforcements arrived.
“There was so much activity it was unreal, people coming in, helicopters, the doctor. They couldn’t believe what they were seeing,” said Williams. “The lads standing, cuts and wounds, no shirts, just their trousers and boots, with mud everywhere. It must have been a sight.”
The battle had lasted two hours, and the Paras had won the day against all odds. “They should have massacred us,” Williams said. “They really thought they’d win through their superior firepower.”
Williams himself had been so anxious to protect his comrades that he did not realize his own personal injuries. Covered in blood, he was still rushing around trying to assist others when he was apprehended by a medical officer. “The doctor caught me and stuck a needle in my arm and whacked me on the helicopter and that was the end of that,” he said.
He suffered life-changing injuries as a result of his heroism. His machine gun had taken direct hits, and Williams had been sprayed with shrapnel in the face from a mortar round that barely missed him. “Apparently, while I’d been firing the GPMG, the radio set by the left side of my face had been shattered by a mortar and a cloud of shrapnel had gone straight in the left side of my head. When they finally finished with me I was deaf in my left ear and blind on the same side.”
Williams nonetheless continued to serve with airborne forces. Nicknamed “Patch” due to the eyepatch he wore over his left eye, he toured with the Parachute Regiment’s 2nd and 10th battalions. He was eventually promoted to lieutenant colonel, serving as the staff quartermaster of the Army Staff College at Camberley before retiring in October 1989. He served a total of 40 years in the Parachute Regiment.
The remnants of the battalion-strength group that had attacked the Plaman Mapu outpost retreated back across the border, leaving behind large quantities of equipment. Following the British victory, the Indonesian military made no further attempts to launch a large cross-border assault.
Williams received the Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM) for his gallantry at Plaman Mapu. “The successful defense of the position against great odds was largely due to his courage, his example and leadership, and his own direct intervention in the battle at every crisis and at every point of maximum danger,” according to his Dec. 14, 1965, citation in the London Gazette. MH