Complete Unity - and now for the rest of the story...
The teams were deployed in large numbers in early June 1970 to Malaya to take part in a five nation exercise somewhat optimistically named Bersatu Padu. As nearly everyone will be aware "Bersatu padu" is Malay for "complete unity." This is a phrase that was to prove very fitting under the circumstances. The execution of the exercise was made possible by the then Chief of the Defence Staff (CDS), who also being the First Lord of the Admiralty saw the need for a joint exercise involving mainly Army and Airforce personnel. Having acceded to the post, the CDS took it upon himself to acquaint himself with the plans for, among other things, the rapid reinforcement of Malaya. The plan was obviously an ambitious one, which led to his questioning the success of its last trial. His staff officers, not given over to distorting the truth, (although sorely tempted) confessed that the plan had never failed In fact it had never been tried. A foolish answer under the circumstances, as the summer holiday season was looming large on the horizon, albeit slightly smaller and soon to be eclipsed by the exercise.
Having got wind of the forthcoming entertainment, UKMAMS, on the understanding that forewarned is forearmed to those that heed the warning, immediately despatched ground handling aids to Malaya by boat. The equipment was sent to RAF Changi to await its operators as the defence staff made their final preparations before announcing the exercise. Shortly after the exercise was made public knowledge the night of departure for the UKMAMS teams was set for 31st May. The teams were undoubtedly going to be away for some considerable time, and were concerned that the local bars would suffer a sharp decline in profits in their absence. In preparation for the coming task and in a display of selfless generosity UKMAMS ensured in that single night prior to departure that the mess bar profits were fully taken care of until their return.
In the very early hours of 1st June (or by the Commanding Officer's Malayan calendar watch 62nd April) the whole team reeled and staggered into a VC10 headed for the Far East. The first stop on the way was RAF Muharraq, a small British concern in Bahrain. On landing the teams were all shocked out of their self-induced comas by the outside air as it entered the aircraft. Generously described as "hot breath of a stagnant camel" it was in reality little different to the breath from the team members. True to the policy of "When in Rome" etc., the teams decided to try the old Arab remedy "The hair of the camel", and departed for the transit lounge in order to reassure their livers with rum and cola. The stop was only to last two hours before getting airborne for the final leg to RAF Changi. Policy prohibits the consumption of alcohol on RAF aircraft although only a loadmaster of above average perception (a rare occurrence) would have noticed that the coke cans carried onto the aircraft by the passengers had in fact all been opened - obviously a precaution against sudden depressurization.
After an eight hour flight the teams arrived at RAF Changi. The air was now more reminiscent of a putrifying camel, and was at a temperature that could only accelerate the process. The teams were allowed two weeks to acclimatize, but any thoughts of a gentle lead-in were soon to be thwarted. The boss, known to his wife as Squadron Leader Slade, informed the team's leader, Flight Lieutenant Jim Stewart, that he would be briefing within the hour, leaving the new arrivals little time to sober up from the effects of the pressure proof coke. The briefing included the wonderful news that UKMAMS were to be allowed to participate in cricket matches and sports days, and, if they were really good boys, a jungle survival course. Attractive as these diversions were, the entertainment appeared to the teams to be part of a deliberate ploy to keep UKMAMS personnel away from the less principled, if more appealing, attractions of downtown Singapore. Protest was useless, and the UKMAMS contingent, now amalgamated with the resident Far East MAMS, were divided into two halves and the first lucky customers were driven off into the jungle. The purpose of the exercise was never fully explained to the participants and its goal was probably never achieved by them. However they all shared the same terrible conviction that at some stage they were expected by the staff to find and eat some of the local fauna and flora. Sadly, as an exercise in learning, the course was not a complete success. The edible varieties of the indigenous population of the jungle made themselves scarce whilst the unfed "survivors" contented themselves with hacking paths through the primary vegetation because that's what they do in Tarzan films and no one had bothered to brief them differently. The second half of the party were destined never to get into the jungle in order to miss seeing the things they had omitted to learn about during the jungle lectures. This came about as the result of a bureaucratic storm which blew up larger than a NAAFI pie on its sell by date and was alleged to involve a lack of individuals assessed officially as medically unfit for jungle training. Needless to say the teams were devastated, and yet, in a display of typical British stiff upper lip, they kept a brave face and weathered the disappointment. In an inspired episode of medical brilliance MAMS were spared the remote possibility of falling ill in the jungle, and were released to the brothels and bars of Bugis Street in Singapore City where disease is, of course, practically unheard of.
After a seemingly endless round of sports fixtures, the attraction of playing cricket began to pall. In contrast the fleshpots of Singapore were becoming more attractive, very much in the way that a less than glamorous woman (or "battle pig" to the more chauvinistic and earthy elements of society) gradually improves aesthetically as the eye of the beholder becomes progressively more inebriated. To counter this deteriorating situation the boss, Flt Lt Stewart, under pressure from the Sqn Ldr, decided to start the exercise early. It was apparent that the large forklift that the UKMAMS detachment had pre positioned and now so proudly looked after would be most advantageously employed in the exercise area. This was to be Penerak, where the airhead would be set up, and where ultimately the forward teams would be sent in order to offload the exercise aircraft. To transport this beast to the forward airhead the boss had arranged for space to be available on the Royal Fleet Auxiliary vessel Sir Galahad. It took some persuasion of the Army movers that the forklift was indeed as critical to the airlift as UKMAMS stated (the army brain is like a computer in this respect as information has to be punched in). Luckily, after much discussion and many threats the Army relented and allowed space for the forklift and its designated driver which was subsequently loaded and sent round the coast to the nearest bit of land to the Airhead.
The Sir Galahad duly arrived as close to Penerak as it was able to go, and dropped anchor about four hundred yards off the beach. The forklift was then driven onto a float and powered to the shore with the aid of an outboard motor. Once ashore the driver of the forklift, Sgt Dave Barton, after a brief consultation of the map, set off into the jungle in the direction of the Airhead. The map was not as detailed as it might have been, but then the Letts Pocket Diary with the map of the world in the back was never intended for accurate jungle navigation. Despite the lack of assistance, Dave Barton made swift progress following a well trodden track and a map of the London Underground. To any locals within sight and sound of the path, Dave Barton must have seemed like something from Malayan folklore. Sitting astride a huge beast with its deep diesel roar, blazing headlights and waving forks, he must have appeared as a latter day dragon tamer as he crunched through the jungle. The sound of aircraft overhead convinced our driver that not only was he headed in the right direction, but he was late for the start of the exercise. Dave put his foot to the floor at the same moment that two exercise umpires chose to spring from the undergrowth into the path of the oncoming vehicle. Road safety lectures will no doubt confirm that such actions are often the result of poor kerb drill training and an unhappy childhood, and all too frequently end in nasty accidents.
Picking themselves up from the track, the umpires enquired as to the reason for the puzzling presence of a forklift in the jungle. Following a lengthy explanation as to the role of UKMAMS in the exercise, and the role of a forklift in UKMAMS, the driver was politely informed that a bridge for which he was headed, and vital to his continued journey, had in fact been blown up, and that he would, in due course, be advised as to when he could proceed. A bitter disappointment that, after Herculean efforts to get the vehicle to the airhead in time for the start of the exercise, Sgt D Barton was obliged to sit in the jungle just a monkey's throw from his destination with the sound of the airlift ringing in his ears, and his forklift truck for company.
In the event, the absence of the forks proved costly, as, forced into less than recommended practices, the MAMS teams at the airhead managed to put a hole in the ramp of one aircraft, which was retired from the exercise for more genuine reasons than the bridge.
Once started, the airlift into Penerak continued without a break. Whilst all new arrivals were setting up camp, the newly arrived MAMS teams had to push on regardless unloading more and more troops and equipment with no chance to secure their own domestic comfort. Fortunately the new teams were able to rely on the advance party who had already arranged some basic home comforts and food. As the Army began to build up in strength in the area, so the senior officers began to put in an appearance, confident that their men had sufficient time to arrange their tents and catering. Now all battles must be fought with all participants correctly dressed as per the local commander's orders. As a tribute to flexibility in adverse conditions, a local order was issued that prohibited the removal of any of the issued Jungle Green uniform. The uniform was specially designed not only to conserve heat, but to turn black and smell when drenched with sweat, and if there is one factor common to all MAMS tasks it is the unsolicited appearance of sweat. In colourful contradiction to local orders, the MAMS teams quickly turned from green to black and then grey as dust from the landing strip, blown by the aircraft, plastered them during offloads. To maintain a steady supply of dust, the aircraft kept engines running during the whole procedure. Another reason for leaving the engines running during offloads was to allow the aircraft to make a swift exit from the airstrip once unloaded. An expeditious turnaround and departure is, of course, necessary to avoid the aircraft engines ingesting too much dust, which of course would hinder their ability to generate the stuff. After fourteen hours of uninterrupted labour (so much for Tory policies) the MAMS qualified for their first meal of the day. A slice of mashed potato and a dollop of corned beef received a rousing reception from the hungry movers. Acting with considerable restraint, the MAMS teams asked, with commendable politeness why the food was more akin to "copulating excrement" (the actual phrase in its translation from Malay) than anything remotely edible. Not receiving a completely satisfactory answer, but a mumbled explanation that the NAAFI were involved and had made an error of judgment, the MAMS team decided to become self catering.
The plan required the use of a helicopter and a supplier of the goods required. There was no shortage of aircraft in the area, and with e the promise of an outlet for the pilots souvenirs on the recovery airlift (tantamount to offering unlimited baggage allowance), UKMAMS managed the successful hijacking of one of the exercise communications helicopters which regularly flew to RAF Changi and its inherant facilities. The provision of a suitable shopping list and a handful of cash to pay for the goods presented little problem. Normally on deals of this nature, the pilot agrees to help and receives a crate of beer in compensation for his trouble. To their great credit, the helicopter crew flew the mission free of charge, freeing the total sum collected for the purchase of beer which was, incidentally, also heavily rationed and virtually unobtainable at Penerak - Hooray for the NAAFI, the serviceman's friend.
The first UKMAMS "relief flight" arrived outside the ops tent during a daily flight safety briefing on the problems of rotor downwash in a jungle encampment. The MAMS team offloaded the engines running helicopter with remarkable swiftness. The military commanders of the airhead were curious but unable to determine the nature of the load being squirreled away into the jungle as they were otherwise engaged in trying to retrieve the opts tent, maps, tables and flight safety posters telling its audience to "BEWARE DOWN WASH". With this most important mission complete, the teams were once again able to get back to the task of handling the airlift. During the melee that was the average working day, one member of Foxtrot team, or F Troop as they were known, was dispatched to help the local supplier organize his stores. It was to prove a not too unproductive episode in the exercise from the movers point of view. The supplier found, by chance, that he had a spare refrigerator, and, by lucky coincidence, an electrician to wire it into the camp supply.
By now the UKMAMS detachment were receiving their rations direct from the NAAFI stores at Changi at no cost, as they were not using the camp caterers. With this extra food airlifted in daily, coupled with an electric frying pan brought out by Flt Sgt Don Wickham, it came to pass, that by day three, UKMAMS were the envy of the whole camp. A full English breakfast, cold meats and salad for lunch, followed by a gourmet evening meal, complete with cold beer, did a lot to raise the spirits of the movements population. It was also of benefit to the rest of the camp, for without the hungry mouths of UKMAMS to feed, more corned beef, mashed potato and lukewarm stewed tea was available for their consumption.
One small cloud that remained on the horizon was the fact that the camps petrol driven generator was hard pushed to keep up with the fluctuating electricity demand of the frying pan. At MAMS feeding times the camp lights would dim and the generator would cough and splutter. The camp electrician, himself coughing and spluttering, would stagger from his tent and turn up the throttle to increase the power output. At this point in the proceedings, the generator, freed from the demands of trying to provide power for the frying pan, would increase its rpm and race towards its own destruction. No doubt the generator would have exploded save for the dedicated electrician who, having settled down, was once again obliged to stumble across to the machine and close the throttle, before everything else in the camp blew their fuses. This whole scenario was repeated many times a day for the whole exercise without the electrician ever suspecting the root cause. It was on the last day of the exercise that he eventually found out why this was happening. As he gathered up his cable ready for the camp to be closed, he happened across the unauthorized frying pan connection in the wire. He should, by rights, have been pleased to have reached the bottom of the mystery. His mood remained suspiciously dark and he became less than effusive in his praise of UKMAMS (leading to the suspicion that he was a closet communist).
As the exercise progressed, it became increasingly apparent that the exercise planners (determined that the absence of an enemy should not spoil a perfectly good war), were taking the whole fictitious military scenario terribly seriously. Equally obvious was the fact that the MAMS teams were not. During one particularly harrowing "air attack" carried out with relentless, if imaginary, efficiency, the airstrip was cratered, making landings impossible. A single (and this time real) Hercules circled the airstrip while an Army working party, wielding imaginary shovels, in a mime that Marcel Marceau would have admired, drove around the airfield in a real three ton truck filling in imaginary craters. There was to be no slacking in this charade as a very real RSM stalked, yelling among his arm waving protégés, extolling them to greater efforts. The whole airstrip was "repaired" shortly before the Hercules ran our of fuel and crashed into the jungle.
With these, and one or two other diversions, the hard working days continued, with the teams given to increasingly boisterous evening entertainment. The beer stocks remained high and MAMS run speak easys started to flourish, ensuring continued financial support for the import of stocks and subsidized drinking for the movers. It was shortly after a particularly rousing evening that a complaint was received from the hierarchy, whose sense of humour had been dulled by weeks of corned beef and mashed potato. The boss, Jim Stewart, was brought in to administer the fatherly debriefing it was felt MAMS deserved. After a lengthy chat he was eventually persuaded that MAMS was not involved in an illicit booze running when a regular customer appeared in the tent door requesting his daily supply. Jim was one of nature's gentlemen, and a fine officer who, without turning a hair, bid all a goodnight before disappearing into the darkness. Point taken however, and thereafter movers drank and conducted themselves a lot more quietly.
Despite the regular comforts that MAMS had acquired, the work was still hard and quite often dirty. Sadly the laundry service in the jungle proved inadequate for the teams needs, and, once again, a local solution was found to the problem. The cooks were approached for the loan of a large cooking pot which, owing to the shortage of food was unlikely to be employed in its primary role. Team members Taff Eynon, Tony Gale and Jerry Freezer built a large wood fire and erected a cauldron stand above the flames. Washing was boiled up in the pot until vaguely clean and then hung out on a makeshift washing line outside the MAMS tent. It was during such a laundry session one day that the planners sprung another "air attack". The plumes of black smoke rising form the MAMS fire to high above the airstrip stimulated the rumour that real bombs were being used, and that the movers had received a direct hit. Senior staff, unimpressed with this contribution of visual realism to the proceedings, came to make their feelings known to the occupants of the MAMS tent, and to check that some catastrophe had not befallen the camp. This proved to be a mistake as they were further pushed into an apoplectic fit by the sight of numerous undergarments, compromising the camouflage of the site, as they fluttered conspicuously in the breeze.
UKMAMS has always prided itself on the collection of unusual souvenirs of a type not normally found in the shops, and it was during an evenings relaxation, towards the end of the exercise, that the subject of souvenirs was brought up. As a result of these high level talks, the forklift truck was sent with a supply of cargo chains to a large milestone set into the roadside verge. Under the cover of darkness, the two ton, ten foot tall stone was gradually lifted from the earth and carried back to the airhead. The cavity in the road represented a real hazard to the local traffic, and, to help reduce the chance of an accident, the hole was filled with a conveniently large branch taken from a nearby tree. Locals going to work the next day were flung into a superstitious panic to witness the miraculous transformation of the milestone into a tree, and for weeks no one dared venture out after dark. This incident not only set Malayan education back fifty years and spawned a return to the practice and belief of voodoo, but also served indirectly to place black cockerels and white hens on the endangered species list.
During quieter period of the exercise, the team members were able to transit back to Changi on the aircraft moving the troops. In this way the MAMS detachment were able to smuggle back their souvenirs as well as keep up stocks of provisions through regular shopping expeditions.
On the 3rd of July the last of the MAMS detachment were flown from Penerak back to Changi. They were to remain in Singapore for a further six days where they attempted to rejoin civilization before being flown back to Brize Norton and home to Abingdon.
In a strange twist of fate a milestone bearing foreign inscriptions appeared outside the UKMAMS crewroom at RAF Abingdon and now sits outside UKMAMS Headquarters at RAF Lyneham - a finger of stone pointing accusingly at UKMAMS - the Malayan Gods are not to be denied.