The John Masters Story
by Mike Subritzky
I think I was about 20 when I joined 161 Battery, RNZA. I was the first Gunner recruited after New Zealand withdrew from the Viet Nam conflict. From memory, it was Prime Minister Rob Muldoon who brought the Battery home. My first Battery Commander was Major John Masters MC, a very polite gentleman with a fatherly manner who, along with the BSM Neville Fisher, first welcomed me into 161 Battery.
There must have been about a dozen Gunner Officers in the RNZA at that time who had been awarded various decorations. The Military Cross that Major Masters wore, and its history, was something of a mystery, as he hadn't got it in Viet Nam, and no one actually knew exactly what he had been decorated for. Each and every Lance Bombardier had his own version of events. Being something of a history buff, not knowing rankled me and years later, at an Old Comrade's gathering at the Spa Hotel in Taupo, I finally managed to badger Colonel John Masters into telling me of those three days of action that occurred in Borneo. The actual story, as told in a matter of fact manner by John Masters himself, was far more amazing than any of the yarns that were circulating in 161 Battery when I was a young Gunner. I have since read accounts in four military histories, both Gurkha and SAS, and by two of his Commanding Officers. The sheer selflessness, gallantry, fear, guts and above all "the will to win" that comes shining through from this account read like something straight out of the "Boys Own Paper". The following is the true story of the Immediate award of a Military Cross to (then) Captain John M. Masters RNZA.
From the mid-sixties of the last century, the British Army, some 50,000 strong and including Australian and NZ Battalions, was involved in combating General Soekarno of Indonesia, and his grandiose plans for much of South East Asia. In the Borneo First Division, British Infantry battalions operated against the Indonesian lines of communications. They were mainly pre-emptive strikes known as "Claret" operations, and were politically deniable. Their purpose was to wrest the initiative from the Indonesians who had had early successes with terrorist attacks on Borneo and Sarawak.
On the 26 June 1965, the 2nd Battalion, King Edward VII's Own Goorkha's, took over the Lundu Area of Operations in Borneo, relieving the 1st Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. In Direct Support of the Gurkhas was New Zealander, Captain John Masters, Troop Commander, who was to act as an Artillery Forward Observer. He had originally been seconded from the NZ Army to 29th (Corunna) Battery, 4 Light Regiment, Royal Artillery, and had been in Borneo for some six months patrolling with the Argylls and 3RAR.
The Lundu AO was very flat terrain, intersected by large meandering jungle rivers, with occasional rocky outcrops rising straight up out of the thick primary jungle. The whole of the AO was also prone to flooding at the very first hint of rain.
The actual border with the Indonesian province of Kalimantan was little more than a line drawn on an old Dutch map, and both the Indonesians and the British often took advantage of this situation, explaining away any concerns as simply "Map reading errors; sorry."
On his first operation with the Gurkha's, John accompanied Captain Surendraman Gurung who was temporarily in command of Support Company, and on the 2nd August, the Company sprung a very well planned ambush accounting for eight Indonesian soldiers, all KIA. This was followed by a second successful company-sized patrol with Captain Chris Bullock where a further twenty-seven Indonesian soldiers were killed without the loss of a single Gurkha. In his book of his memoirs, published thirty years later in 1995, Chris Bullock (now a retired Brigadier) has a comment about John Masters on that patrol, that John particularly treasures.
"After the battle and a quick check that everybody was present, we moved off the hill back to our base in the swamp. I can remember intense irritation as John Masters, our Artillery Officer, slowly retrieved his drying socks and laced up his jungle boots. As we moved off, he readjusted his guns to fire on the hill we had just vacated. A few minutes later, the Indonesian attack went in on the now empty hilltop with what seemed like at least a platoon. As they reached the top, the first 105mm shell crumped in above us on the heights."
Gurkha jungle patrols averaged 14 days against the normal 7-day patrols of Brit and Australian infantry battalions. After the second patrol returned to Base, it was decided that a seven day break was in order and John was looking forward to catching up on a mountain of Troop administration that had been quietly gathering dust while he was out on operations.
Almost immediately Brigade informed the Gurkhas that as a result of their activities during the last two patrols in the AO, the Indonesians were moving a re-enforcement company into the area.
Following deep penetration patrol reports from Sergeant-Major Lawrence Smith, SAS, Captain Chris Bullock was back in command of a very reduced Support Company, totalling about 60 men. 45 of these were to be used in the upcoming ambush, and the remainder kept in reserve at a rear recce position about 2 klicks away. The Company was in such a depleted state due to the rigours of the two previous patrols and the onset of scrub typhus among some soldiers after being bitten by mites. They were, however, the soldiers who had been to that area twice before.
As the river was in flood Chris Bullock judged that the Indonesians would probably make the journey on foot. The area was recced on the first day in the area, after a walk-in of four days. Early the following morning, the ambush was laid covering a well-used track running parallel to the river so that both the track and the river formed the killing ground.
(THURSDAY, 2 SEPTEMBER 1965) Chris Bullock was forward amongst his men and had established a checkpoint 20 metres to the rear through which all of the killing group were to move once the ambush had been sprung and the order to withdraw had been given. Located at the checkpoint were John Masters the Forward Observer, Acting CSM Hariprasad Gurung, a radio operator and the company medic. Each of John's RA Driver Ops were a casualty of the earlier patrols, and the scrub typhus mites. He had a Gurkha rifleman to carry his fire orders net radio.
To the right flank and near the river lay the bren gunner, Rifleman Ramparsad Pun and members of the Recce Platoon. SAS intelligence was impressive, accurate and timely. It was Rifleman Pun who first sighted a group of Indonesians moving into the ambush area and they appeared to be arriving in depth. With great courage Rifleman Pun held his fire until there were some twenty-five enemy soldiers in the killing area and their lead scout was almost on top of him. He then initiated the ambush with a long and murderous burst of automatic fire killing instantly the lead scout and three other enemy close behind.
Immediately all hell broke loose. The Indonesians, (who were in fact a reinforced company), stung by the initial surprise, reacted instantly. With great courage they attacked the ambush group in an attempt to overwhelm the numerically inferior ambushers (40 in number). Screaming and firing from the hip, they attempted to roll over the right flank. The Anti Tank Platoon, which made up the left flank, engaged the enemy, shooting from the prone position and, in less than a minute, had accounted for a further twelve enemy.
Again the Indonesians quickly regrouped and launched a second attack but this was broken up when Lance Corporal Birbahadur Pun detonated a bank of Claymore mines into the onrushing Indonesians, and that attack faltered. As well, individual Gurkhas threw M26 grenades into the confusion causing further enemy casualties. The Indonesians were still firing wildly, and 20 metres back at the Check Point, the crack and thump of incoming small arms fire seemed to be everywhere. After his first "Contact, Wait, Out", John Masters had radioed a full set of Fire Orders, with a hold on the final command to fire.
The Gurkhas, to a man, remained in position and each time the Indonesians reformed and attacked the Gurkhas waited until the enemy were right on top of them and then cut them down with outstanding fire control.
Amongst the killing group individual Gurkha NCOs, under Bullock's directions, began yelling fire orders, and at about the same time a second force of Indonesians began to engage them from the other side of the river. The small group of Gurkhas was now taking fire from two distinct groups of heavily armed enemy, and both appeared vastly superior in numbers. The volume of incoming fire was devastating and it was obvious that the Indonesians were in much greater strength than the ambushers.
Chris Bullock ordered the right flank to withdraw and they came through the Check Point, leopard crawling, flat on their bellies, disciplined and fast. Once through the Check Point, they reformed about 30 metres to the rear and began laying down covering fire for the rest of the ambush group. Chris yelled hoarsely over the constant hammer of small arms fire "WITHDRAW!" "WITHDRAW!" and the rest of the ambush group then moved through the Check Point
As the remainder of the Gurkha's moved rapidly past, a further Indon charge was launched. Suddenly two enemy soldiers rushed through the thick vegetation both firing directly at the CSM and John, one round smashing into the stock of John's SLR. Sad to say, the Medical Orderly ran for his life. John remembers blistering his hand on the unprotected rifle barrel, but little recall of returning the fire, so close, and directly into the enemy. No quarter was to be given, and action was purely reflex. Both enemy soldiers fell dead virtually right on top of them...the look in their eyes, as they were killed, haunted John for years afterwards.
As the remainder of the ambush party now opened up a heavy volume of fire into the massed enemy, John and the CSM took advantage of this cover to pull back. They began running, and about fifteen metres from the Check Point, the CSM fell to the ground having been stitched with five rounds, two in his leg, his hip and in his ankle. On a great adrenalin high, John remembers his intense flash of anger at the CSM tripping on a root at such a moment. He screamed at Hariprasad to "Come! Come!" Then he saw what had happened, and turned and ran back.
There was blood everywhere and John yelled to the other Gurkhas for assistance. However in the confusion of battle they had simply melted away and into the jungle. Wasting no time John stripped the CSM of his webbing and SMG. He slung them around his neck before pulling him to his feet and, with the CSM putting his arm around John's shoulder, they ran in the direction of Chris Bullock and the others so as to make a clean break from the ambush area.
At that instant it struck John and the CSM that the others had kept moving and they had fallen behind. Sheer primeval survival kicked in as they struggled as quickly as possible, running and stumbling into the thick of the jungle to put as much distance between themselves and any Indonesian follow-up. They had lost all contact with Chris and the Gurkhas and were completely alone.
Absolutely exhausted and lathered in sweat, they eventually collapsed into the mud and lay there for several minutes listening to the jungle sounds, trumpets, whistles, shouting and screams, and the thumping of their own heartbeat. The CSM was groaning and in tremendous pain and John got his first real look at the injuries. The bullets that hit the leg appeared to have gone right though, with exit wounds visible, while the round that hit the ankle was obviously still there. There was also a flesh wound at the hip that was bloody. John applied his own field dressing and the CSM's, and managed to stem the blood flow.
They lay in the mud for a very long time, listening for any sound of an Indonesian follow-up and trying to decide what to do next. The CSM was obviously in great pain and appeared to be all but done in. John was carrying morphia but decided not to use it, as he needed the CSM conscious and not a dead weight. Regaining his strength, John pulled out his map and compass and calculated that they were somewhere south of the ambush point. He selected a compass bearing that would take them back across the border to the Gurkha Company base, and safety.
Eventually the CSM struggled to his feet and they slowly and quietly moved off, John carrying the wounded CSM for about an hour and a half in short spells of five or ten minutes, until he was quite exhausted. They stopped and lay down for a planned hour's rest but after a while, the CSM reached out for a stick and pulled himself to his feet and announced that he would try and walk for himself. Considering the obvious pain he was in and the blood loss, it was an amazing show of strength and will. Mind you, the CSM was no fool as he knew that John obviously couldn't carry him all the way back to the border. John decided to take no chances and lashed the compass to his wrist so that it couldn't be lost in the mud or swamp as they stumbled along.
By now it was early afternoon and the CSM managed to keep going until some time after 1600. John walked ahead with his weapon ready and compass permanently in his hand; he had made a conscious decision not to deviate from that bearing come what may. They rested briefly and then, as the CSM was all but out on his feet, John carried him for about another two hours. However progress was slow as the CSM was now in great pain and John's strength was starting to fail him.
Towards sunset they found a suitable tree and John put down some leaves and brush for a bed.
Between them they had twelve dry biscuits, a packets of "Spangles" (glucose sweets), and a small bag of nuts and raisins. Of course the rest of their rations were in their main packs at their company rear recce position. They also had three water bottles between them.
As they had eaten a cooked rice breakfast that morning they decided not to eat anything that night as, due to the slowness of their progress, it would probably take several days to get back to the camp. Neither man slept, both absorbed with the events of the day. It was a long and harrowing night.
(FRIDAY) Early next morning they ate two biscuits each, and drank a small amount of the water. John was stiffened and sore from the ordeal of the previous day and the deflating after-effects of so much hyped-up action. The CSM was in enormous pain and was incapable of even standing.
John slung both weapons and struggled to fireman's carry the wounded CSM. Checking his compass bearing he stumbled off in the direction of the border and safety. He was moving as carefully as possible so as not to cause more pain to his wounded comrade and unaware, then, that he was, himself, suffering the debilitating onset effects of scrub typhus.
After nearly two hours he stopped for a long breather and to check his map against his compass bearing. Looking back through the jungle he could almost see the area of the big tree where they had spent the previous night. Realising that the current situation was hopeless, he considered dumping the weapons and webbing to lighten the weight he was carrying and simply struggle on with the CSM, but no soldier would make such an unwise judgement. John made the cold-blooded decision to hide his wounded comrade, and strike out for help on his own with what strength he had left. He hid the CSM in the bowels of a large tree, handing him back his SMG, webbing and ammo, two full water bottles and all the food.
John looked the badly wounded Gurkha in the eyes and told him to remain exactly where he was as he was going to get back on his own, link up with the company and then return with them and get him to hospital. The Gurkha acknowledged John, but it was obvious from the look in his eyes that Hariprasad believed it was the last time he would see the "white" Captain again.
Knowing his strength was failing, John wasted no time. He checked his personal weapon, ammunition, and the bearing he had chosen to march on and struck out in the direction of the border.
After about 20 minutes he came to a large river and realised this spot would be crucial if he was to locate the tree upon his return with the company. He did a visual scan of the area, memorised the pattern of some fallen logs, made distinctive boot prints on both sides of the river and then, with another quick check of the bearing of march, he was off once more.
Being alone in the jungle, in hostile territory, causes its own stress. All of the unreasonable fears crowded in, and John just forced himself to remain calm and focused on the bearing and the need to get help for the badly wounded soldier. Sometimes moving quickly, sometimes stumbling, and sometimes crawling, at about 1500 that same afternoon he discovered a firm track that was headed in the direction he was going. About an hour later he knew he was close to the Gurkha's forward gun position. He fired two shots, which had the desired affect of an immediate "Stand To" on the base, so that any weapon pointed at him would be aimed deliberately by someone looking to see what he was shooting at. He stripped off his shirt to look "very white" and walked up to the wire. He had made it back to the company lines!
The Gurkhas who had long given him up for dead, lowered their weapons, and looked on him as if they had seen a ghost!
There was a radio on the position and within minutes John was speaking with the CO, relaying the firefight story and the state of the injuries to the CSM. He also passed on a rough Grid Reference of the location of the CSM's position.
That done John sat down to a bowl of soup that he had hardly finished when the CO arrived at the position in a helicopter. John volunteered to return immediately with a doctor and within less than an hour a fresh company of just over 100 of the grimmest looking Gurkhas that could be mustered was assembled to move out. Chris Bullock's depleted company was also to arrive within a few hours, and he accompanied the fresh troops. They moved off into the late sunset and hoochied-up at last light, deep on the Indonesian side of the border.
(SATURDAY) The company broke camp before dawn next morning and moved off, each man determined to find their wounded comrade. About midday, the scouts came upon the river that John had marked but, from his map reading, he figured that they were about two grid squares to the north of the area of the logs. The scouts accepted this and continued south staying parallel to the near bank.
At about 1600, late that afternoon the scouts located John's boot prints and the crossing place. When John saw the logs he had memorised, he went down on one knee and held his head in his hands. For some minutes he was overcome with relief and with the realisation that finally his wounded Sergeant Major would be found. The Gurkhas simply "didn't see him" during these few minutes and then they fanned out with the scouts and trackers in the front. One of the trackers located John's tracks and within about twenty minutes they had located the CSM. He was conscious, but beyond any reaction. John held out his hand and Hariprasad took it, but his eyes were expressionless.
The Battalion Doctor now took over and, after an examination, informed the Company Commander that the CSM was now in deep shock and after 54 hours with untreated wounds in the jungle filth and heat, he not only suspected gangrene but could smell it. Radio messages were then sent back to Battalion. In an instant, kukris and gollicks were drawn and a clearing appeared in the jungle like magic. A helicopter had been approved and was inbound.
A makeshift stretcher was constructed and the CSM's wounds were cleaned and redressed by the Doctor. However, as happens in the jungle, a violent electrical storm with driving rain suddenly lashed the area and so it appeared impossible to get a chopper in. At about 1900, just as darkness was closing in there was a window of opportunity, a break in the weather, and, amazingly, a chopper appeared overhead and lowered a Neil Robertson stretcher in through the jungle canopy. Within less than a minute the wounded CSM was winched up and borne safely away to hospital. Half an hour later a message was received that the CSM was safe and in hospital at Kuching.
(SUNDAY) They set off back to the gun position early next morning making good progress and arrived just after midday. John was filthy, exhausted, and swaying with fever from the effects of scrub typhus. The CO was waiting at the LZ and conducted an immediate debrief on the spot. His own information added spice. The night after the battle, a radio intercept picked up from Indonesian military radio traffic that they had captured a British Officer and a Gurkha NCO (they had obviously done some intercepting of their own) and were sending them down river by boat. The CO could hardly believe his luck when John Masters turned up at the Company base.
John was ordered to board the first inbound chopper that was to take him to hospital, but before anything else could happen, all of the Senior NCOs of Chris Bullock's company formed up and moved over to where John was standing. Then individually, each proud Gurkha marched forward, halting directly in front of him, standing rigidly to attention, saluting, and then shaking his hand. It was a very emotional ceremony as each man acknowledged the New Zealand Officer's courage and fortitude. This was a moment between men with a shared experience of battle, and John had considerable difficulty holding back the tears as this honour was paid to him by the world's finest regiment of fighting soldiers.
Hariprasad's leg was saved, but only just, and he was invalided home to Nepal. News in later years told of the CSM subsequently fathering three more fine sons. So it was meant to be.
Mike Subritzky, April 2003