The Laughing Cavalier in Borneo.
On Saturday, 8th December, 1962 elements of the Far East Fleet together with some other ships doing their "East of Suez" stint were in the Java Sea headed back to Singapore having been at Perth for the Commonwealth Games which finished a few days before. The usual exercises and Officer of the Watch manouvres had been carried out under the watchful eye of the force commander in H.M.S. "Tiger" and by stand-easy things in H.M.S. Cavalier were settling down to a quiet Saturday morning at sea in good weather. H.M.S. Cavalier (Captain - Commander Black, a naval pilot) was a CA class destroyer and the fastest ship in the group. I was a special duties sub-lieutenant in the communications branch of about one year's standing and was the squadron' s assistant communications officer who had been sent to Cavalier for the trip to Australia. The night before we had all become aware of problems developing in Brunei by listening to the BBC Far East Service broadcasts.
Like other off-watch officers I was having my morning tea in the wardroom where a very large, gold-framed print of the Laughing Cavalier watched over proceedings when the Radio Supervisor came to the door and told me that a coded message had been received which was for officers eyes only. The message turned out to be from C in C FES (Commander in Chief, Far East Station) ordering Cavalier back to Singapore at best speed to embark stores and personnel and transport them to Labuan in Borneo. This was quickly followed by an instruction from the force commander telling us to detach and proceed. The Cavalier was capable of over 31 knots and we used a fair proportion of that speed as we headed for Singapore. We only slowed down when we got to the Changi Channel leading to the Singapore Dockyard and even then we caused a fair bit of excitement among the locals who had boats moored at buoys and jetties in the channel.
On arrival at the dockyard at about first light on Saturday 8th December work was started to remove the remaining set of our quadruple torpedo tubes which were mounted midships on the upper deck, the forward torpedo tubes having been removed earlier. This was to make room for Land Rovers, trailers and other stores. We were also going to take about 180 troops consisting of members of 42 Commando, Royal Marines and Gurkhas in roughly equal numbers (each at about company strength). After a very hard-working day for everyone the troops and their stores were embarked and we left the naval base just after midnight to a great send-off. "Bill Clacher", Queens Own Highlander Piper, positioned himself at the back of the bridge and started to play his bagpipes as the ship began to move. The Queens own Highlanders, a few Royal Marines and a few Gurkhas were going to war and the Cavalier was taking them there. However, no-one could hear each other on the bridge and the piper was invited to position himself in the waist of the ship where the pipes did not affect the operation of the ship! It was both eerie and exciting as we moved off in the dark back down the Changi Channel towards the open sea.
On the Sunday we were about half way to Brunei when I took over the bridge for the first dog watch (1600 - 1800) and, as I remember it, we were moving at about 22 knots and a good lookout had to be kept for small fishing boats. By my next watch, the Morning watch (0400 - 0800) we had rounded the north-west corner of Borneo and had passed Kuching. Before I went up to the bridge I remember offering my bunk to a Royal Marine who was trying to sleep in the cabin flat (happily Cavalier was like that). At first light we passed Seria and could see flames on the shore which we thought might have been from fires caused by the uprising though it turned out that they were flames from gas burn-off at the offshore oil wells.
We came to anchor in Labuan Bay at about 10.00 a.m. and the troops and their equipment were disembarked. The Royal Marines and Gurkhas, I understand, were almost immediately flown by RAF Beverley to Brunei airport which was still partly in the hands of the "opposition" but which was soon after liberated. I remember being amused by the RAF's means of deciding whether the Beverleys were alright to fly. Five bullet holes meant the aircraft could fly but six meant it was grounded.
When we arrived there was just one small Royal Navy ship in the area. This was a "Ton" class minesweeper which might have been H.M.S. Dartington. The minesweeper was sent upriver to Brunei town wharf to see if they could be of any assistance there. Meanwhile Cavalier was changing its role from "troopship" to a forward communications headquarters and by the end of the morning practically every radio set in the ship was in use. The ship's operations room became an information centre and was to be my permanent home for many long hours. Members of the ships company who were not involved in this work also had plenty to do. They carried out a variety of tasks both afloat and ashore including setting up and running a P.O.W. camp on Labuan island. The ship's boats were all in use and a number of us were sent in all directions to carry out a myriad of different jobs from time to time. I saw most signals that were passed via Cavalier but the saddest one I read was the one that reported the death of five Royal Marines killed in action. They were, as far as I know, the first fatal casualties in Borneo and it really brought it home to us what we were there for. I suspect they were men who had traveled to Borneo in Cavalier and might even have included the lad to whom I had given my bunk so that he could have a few decent hours sleep. We also saw the first RAF fighter aircraft to be involved, Hunters, pass over Labuan Bay headed up the Limbang River to support the Royal Marines in the interior. The photo on the right is me in Brunei. It was taken in the girl's school in Brunei town which was used as a headquarter's for General Walker and his staff. This is one of the classrooms that we, the communications cell, used. Desks and chairs can be seen stacked in the background.
I remember our time in Labuan as a time when the ship was very quiet. Everyone who wasn't ashore working was so tired out that they were sleeping whenever they had the chance. On about the fourth day and when we were all suffering badly from lack of sleep we received word that H.M.S. Tiger was coming to relieve us and surely enough, round about midday she was steaming into Labuan Bay with one or two other smaller ships. The first message we got by light from Tiger was one telling us to set radio watch on three more channels. My thoughts were "Typical big ship. How many damned radios do they think we've got?" Fortunately the Communications Officer in Tiger was a personal friend and I was able to diplomatically point out the impracticability of this request in simple words both of which he understood.
In due time we turned everything over to H.M.S. Tiger and then sailed away from Labuan at a much more leisurely pace than we had arrived. On the way we tried firing a practice torpedo and did some damage to the hull of the ship when we were attempting to recover the torpedo. This necessitated our going into commercial dry-dock on arrival in Singapore. On arrival at Singapore Roads we passed H.M.S. Albion bound for Borneo with a full deck compliment of helicopters with whom we exchanged information on the situation back in Labuan. Shortly after arrival in dry-dock at Singapore the Fleet Communications Officer came onboard. Soon I was packing my kit. Cavalier had finished with Borneo after a hectic few days of holding the fort while the bigger ships got themselves organized. As for me I was headed back to Borneo as the Naval Communicator on General Walker's staff at the headquarters of Commander British Forces, Borneo where I was to stay for four months or so sleeping in a bed made for a very small schoolgirl and being looked after by a Gurkha batman.
The webmasters would like to thank David for taking the time to tell us his story. We would also like to say a big thank you to Roger Hunt (Speedy) (ex. Killick Stoker, 1961-63 Commission) Secretary H.M.S. Cavalier Association. Who very kindly allowed us to use the 3 images you see here of H.M.S. Cavalier taken in 1962 from a helicopter from 'Ark Royal' when Speedy was on her. We were chaser for the carrier out there at the time, as we were the fastest ship in the fleet able to do it. . Please take a moment to visit the H.M.S. Cavalier Association web page by clicking on the H.M.S. Cavalier badge.