THE young natives’ deep sense of patriotism was what two former British servicemen remember the most when they were assigned to carry out a recruitment drive in Sarawak for the Royal Rangers Regiment (RRR) in the 1960’s.
A long line of young strong men had queued up for the entire five days of recruiment, eagerly awaiting their turn in stifling heat and at times, heavy downpours. But nothing could dampen their spirits.
And for recruiters Jock Wingfield, 54, and 73-year-old Peter Marr, who were serving with the RRR in Malaya at that time, the scene outside the recruitment centre nearly 50 years ago has been firmly etched in their memory.
“The patriotism of the young natives was impressive,” they noted.
Wingfield, the RRR intelligence officer back then, was assigned to some remote Baram area whose name he can’t remember now, to recruit 100 young men for the Rangers outfit.
He was flown out from the peninsula for the job because of his fluency in local Malay and Iban.
The typical tropical weather and terrain in the state did not deter the young Briton, then just 26 years old. He was no stranger to such evironmental conditions because he had served in Malaya.
Wingfield was given cash — which he kept in a sling bag — for the recruitment drive.
“I don’t doubt the money was helpful but you should see the faces of those young men. They were so eager and keen to serve their country. That stayed in my mind.”
Wingfield, who was also the Continuation Company commander, trained the first batch of Rangers, conducting courses for them in Iban and English.
The training lasted four months.
Marr shares same sentiments as Wingfield. He was the first adjutant and staff officer to Lt Colonel E Gopsill of 7th Gurkha Rifles.
“I was assigned to recruit strong native men somewhere up the Rejang River,” he recalled of the enlistment exercise at Rajah Brooke’s fort.
“Many turned up and they were all strong and fit. With a heavy heart, I had to turn many away because I could only recruit 100 of them.”
The new recruits were later sent to the peninsula for training.
Marr was stationed in Hong Kong before heading south to Malaya in 1963 where he was stationed in Sungei Petani. He was 25 years old at the time.
During his free time, he played sports, especially rugby.
The RRR is an infantry regiment of the Malaysian Army. Its history dates back to the mid-19th century.
At that time, Britain had agreed to raise, train and maintain one infantry battalion each from Sarawak and Sabah.
The 1st Battalion Malaysian Rangers was formed on September 16, 1963 at Baird Camp, Ulu Tiram, Johore — the same camp occupied by the Sarawak Rangers, known then as a peace-keeping force in Sarawak. Lt Col Gopsill was appointed the commanding officer.
The Battalion had served in different parts of the country at different times — Confrontation in Sarawak; Hartal public order operations in Penang; May 13 public order operations in Penang and counter-insurgency operations along the Malaysian-Thai border as well as in peninsular Malaysia and Sarawak.
Both Wingfield and Marr did not visit the Far East again after returning to their home country although memories of the region were never far from their minds.
So when the opportunity arose for a trip to Malaysia, they grabbed it.
During their stay in Kuching, they were touched by the warm reception from the local Armed Forces.
“Kuching has changed trememdously,” Wingfield noted, recalling that when he was stationed here, the tallest building was the Sarawak Museum and the Aurora Hotel was the only ‘star’ hotel in town.
He managed to meet up with his “students” many of whom he could not recognise but they knew he was their trainer and mentor.
Wingfield and Marr were happy to have been given the opportunity to re-visit the country they had served. Both were here as part of the group of 25 former British servicemen to attend a reunion dinner organised for the First Battalion Rangers.