Borneo – a clean war?

Three years of tough and intensive military training.  Hard bitten drill sergeants and skilled combat veterans turning boys of 15 and 16 into trained killers, before sending them off  into the far- flung outposts  of the empire,  to wonderful and exotic postings,  as honed killers.

Yes it was the fag end of the empire, but the army still had bases all across the world, all in need of these highly trained committed young squaddies.  There was plenty of postings to Germany – to Monchen-Gladbach, Celle, Bracht, Dortmund and so on, even more were sent  to Blighty bases in Kineton, Chilwell and god knows where.  Some of us though were to strike it lucky.  Active Service.  What we yearned for. The reason why we were soldiers. . And so it was that after all that hard top rank training I was posted, straight out of boy service, to an active war zone, to the far east, to Borneo, to a glamorous and exotic  Laundry and Bath Unit,

What can you say about war service in a Laundry and bath unit? It’s not the kind of military record you tend to talk about, be it in the pub or at regimental reunions. In fact, when asked, you tend to keep quiet and mutter something about not wanting to talk about your military experience. It gets to the stage that you are so reluctant to talk about it that your workmates begin to suspect it’s because you must have been in the Special Forces.

One of course, does not deny such rumours. I confess that at times, often under the influence of alcohol, that I admitted to belonging to a very special squad of the SAS, which recruited overweight short-sighted volunteers who had a morbid fear of loud bangs and severe trouble with hand eye co-ordination. We were a very elite unit. In fact it wasn’t that bad a chat up line. You tended to end up with women who were either very very stupid or who at least had a reasonable sense of humour.

You will know from your own knowledge of military history that Laundry and bath units don’t feature much in military biographies. You don’t see books on the “Uniforms of Bath Unit Operatives” in the same way as you often see those endless albums of Special Forces books.

It has become the case that books on the SAS have replaced the flood of books that used to be published on the NAZIS. There used to be countless and continuous volumes featuring a swastika and the SS flashes:-. Books on ”SS tactics on the Western Front” or ”Uniforms of the SS Panzer Divisions” and “Weapons of the SS” and “SS insignia of the death camps” It is now perfectly obvious that the winged dagger and the SAS beret  have replaced, in the publishing world, the swastika and the SS flashes. I have even seen a book on “SAS Recipies”.

I am afraid the chances of the Laundry and Bath Unit memoirs featuring in this publishing goldmine are pretty slim. ”Ironing techniques of the Laundry and Bath Unit” might find a niche market, but otherwise we shall have to remain as unsung heroes of the military.

Only once has a Laundry and Bath Unit ever featured in a major movie. It was in the “St. Trinians” series and for some reason, now lost to movie history, the St. Trinian’s girls were sent out to the Middle East and landed  in the desert to be met by a Laundry and Bath Unit guard of honour.

The Bath unit operatives  were lined up in front of tin baths with loofas held in the present arms position. It was a significant appearance and has probably been written into the history of bath units, perhaps even stitched into the regimental colours as a battle honour. Incidentally their regimental colours are the best-pressed and most sparkling clean colours of any in the British Army.

I have included with this brief confession a few photographs of a real Laundry and Bath Unit in action in the Borneo Jungles during that brief intense war against Indonesia. The unit played a significant role in the ultimate success of that war.

Troops from the fighting units, filthy after weeks of chasing the enemy through primary jungle would find it slightly surreal to emerge in their filth to be met by a unit offering them a hot shower and a complete change of clothing. All kinds of fighting units received signals to rendezvous with the brave Bath unit, operating on the front lines of the action. I recall a small unit of Special Forces soldiers, mostly Australian, looking remarkably pale and extremely malnourished, coming out and not saying a single word before going back in with fresh clothes. And a Ghurkha unit, elated after a successful ambush, very shy about undressing and excited and impatient to get back in for more kills.

Such was the effect on the morale of our fighting soldiers that it is reasonable to assume that the Indonesians specifically targeted the bath unit for elimination.. Had their leading formations ever reached the bath unit perimeter they would have faced a formidable force of battle hardened Blackdown trained bath unit operatives, prepared to defend their unit to the last bar of soap. Surely such knowledge must have struck fear into the political and military leadership of the Indonesian Army. And can there be a bath unit operative still alive who is in any doubt that such fear contributed to the eventual surrender of the Indonesians?

Regrettably, I have had to disguise the identity of the Bath Unit operatives appearing in my exclusive photographs. This is of course for security reasons. Some soldiers got the wrong laundry back. And as you all well know, squaddies just don’t forget things like that!

So what do you really say when your young son asks what kind of soldier you were and were you ever in a war and did you ever kill anyone and did you have your own tank and how many people did you kill and were you ever shot at or wounded and were you scared and can you still kill with your bare hands and.and…. Well, my war son, my war, was in fact very clean…..


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3 thoughts on “Borneo – a clean war?

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  1. Hi,
    This is the REAL story of how the Indos were defeated. The gallant lads of the Mobile Bath and Laundry Unit provided a much appreciated service – I should know, is that me lurking under that piece of masking tape in photo 4 ? If not, the image is definitely of an an SF guy going by the dog tags and morphine syrettes hanging around his neck !
    What a brilliant and humerous tale, well done.

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