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WO2 SQUADRON SERGEANT-MAJOR DON 'LOFTY' LARGE
As we lay in our ambush position, the jungle floor beneath us was wet and soft, heavy with the damp smell of decay that had been all around us for days. We had nothing to do but wait for a target to appear on the river below us. Then it started to rain. The four of us exchanged glances as we heard the first rumbles of thunder echoing in the hills. The rain was both a good and a bad thing. At first, the drops were hitting the jungle canopy and the foliage of the old rubber plantation in which we were hiding made a gentle pattering sound. Soon, however, the downpour was crashing into the leaves and churning the surface of the river, creating a constant, unnerving hiss, like the sound from a badly tuned radio. The good thing was that the noise of the rain would mask any din we created when we struggled back along our escape route. On the other hand, the rising water level could also make the swamp through which we had originally come totally impassable. Our route could simply vanish, trapping us between the swamp and any pursuing enemy. For now, though, all we could do was wait.
During the last four days as we had observed the enemy river boats ploughing up and down the waterway laden with men and equipment, we had dutifully reported their movements by radio. Now our job was to hit one vessel, cause as much damage as possible and then pull out fast. We needed at least an hour of daylight in order to put as much distance as we could between us and anyone in pursuit before night fell - you can't make any headway in the jungle after dark. But, unlike the weather, it seemed like the enemy river traffic had dried up. So we waited.
It had been over a week since we had left the old mansion house that was D Squadron Headquarters just outside Kuching, the capital of Sarawak, in western Borneo. We were driven to an airfield where a Twin Pioneer light aircraft waited to take us on to Lundu. There, a chopper had been 'burning and turning' ready to lift us into the jungle right on the border between Sarawak and the Indonesian territory of Kalimantan . Today they are our friends, but back in 1965, under President Sukarno, the Indonesians were most definitely the enemy. Our patrol was one of many that had been sent into the jungle to cross into Indonesian Borneo to seek out the forward bases from which the 'Indos' launched their deadly cross-border raids. We had to identify the routes they used for infiltration and to find out how they supplied their jungle camps.
When we had been given our mission briefing, D Squadron had just three weeks left of our Borneo tour before being shipped home to the UK . This would be our last chance to locate the base that was thought to be on the Koemba River . Our approach to the river was through dense jungle in hilly terrain that fell away into swamps closer to the river. The smaller hills were not charted accurately on our maps and the extent of the swamps changed dramatically according to the amount of rainfall. Studying aerial photographs couldn't show you much of the lie of the land because of the jungle canopy, and once you were in among the canopy visibility was down to just a few yards in places because of the density of the vegetation. It was a confusing and frustrating landscape through which to try to navigate, but Kev (Kevin Walsh), Paddy (Colin 'Paddy' Millikin) and I had complete confidence in our patrol leader, Don 'Lofty' Large.
Lofty had been with the Regiment since 1957, and had hacked his way through the jungles of Malaya, hunting down Communist Terrorists (CTs) during the Malayan Emergency. He had 20 years' experience as a professional soldier and commanded a great deal of respect, not least because he was 6ft 6in (1.98m) tall (hence 'Lofty') and had fists like sacks of potatoes. In Oman in 1958 he once lost his temper with a donkey carrying supplies and felled it with a single punch. You rarely saw Lofty lose it like that, though. He was one of the most laid-back men in the British Army and it wasn't because of his physical stature that he had the respect of us all. We looked up to him because he was simply the finest soldier any of us had ever met. It was Lofty's navigation that took us through the hilly jungle towards the Koemba; it was Lofty who led us through the stinking, bug-infested swamps, wading waist-deep through water covered with green algae; it was Lofty who chose our lying-up position (LUP) just a few hundred yards from the elusive Indo base; and it was Lofty to whom we looked now as we waited impatiently for a target vessel to fall into our ambush.
Suddenly it appeared. The noise of the rain had almost drowned out the sound of its engines. Lofty had seen it first – as patrol leader, he had the best vantage point. It was his job to spring the ambush. Within a few seconds we all had a good view of it – a gleaming white 40ft (12.19m) motor launch flying the enemy flag and so many military pennants it almost made you want to stand to attention and salute it. On Lofty's signal, we would break cover, take up our fire positions and let loose. He held out his arm and we gripped our Self-Loading Rifles (SLRs), waiting for his 'thumbs up'. But the signal never came.
'What are we waiting for?' I heard a voice behind me mutter. 'The f***ing Ark Royal ?'
As the motor launch disappeared round the bend in the river, Lofty squatted down beside us. 'Sorry, lads,' he said, making no pretence at a jungle whisper but speaking up above the sound of the downpour. 'There were women on that boat. Could have been kids as well.'
From Lofty's position, he had been able to see straight in through the glass surrounding the bridge of the motor launch. He had seen a man in a white naval uniform and another, obviously an officer, in army greens. The woman had been standing between them, dry as a bone under cover of the boat's bridge, and had any one of them chosen but to glance in Lofty's direction, they could not have failed to spot him. The line-of-sight distance between them was only about 10 yards (9m). Yet Lofty had stayed stock still, risked being spotted; risked being shot; risked his life because he had the impression that there were other women and children aboard the launch. There was no arguing with his decision. None of us would have wanted to shoot up a boat that had women and kids on board. So it was back to the waiting again.
Far from easing off, the rain grew even heavier. Thunder crashed and lightning lit up the mid-afternoon gloom of the jungle storm. Our time was running out. We were fast approaching the point where we had to choose whether to risk waiting until first light the next day, or whether to head for home without hitting a target. The decision was made for us when the unmistakable chugging sound of a diesel engine came thudding through the sloshing rain. When the boat nosed into view it was a long, wooden, barge-like river boat with a canvas roof that was rolled down at the sides. Lofty gave the 'thumbs up' and had placed three shots on target before I hit my firing position. His first shot took out a soldier who was facing in our direction, his second was for the man next to him and his third felled the soldier next nearest to us, thus eliminating the most immediate threats. We were each to expend 20 rounds on the target. The 7.62mm rounds from our SLRs, the standard British Army issue rifle of the day, were immensely powerful. They could pass through 2ft (0.6m) of timber, so even those soldiers on board the boat who tried to take cover would not have been safe from our shots penetrating the hull. We concentrated our fire on the rear of the boat, trying to disable the rudder, propeller or the engine and by the time Lofty called for us to stop, smoke was billowing out from under the canvas awning and flames flickered deep in the heart of the vessel. It was listing to one side and the engine had stopped, leaving the boat to drift back downstream, slowly sinking.
Kev and Paddy withdrew first, taking up positions to cover me and Lofty. Then we moved as quickly as possible along the route that would take us to the landing zone (LZ) where a chopper would lift us out of the jungle. With a few hiccups along the way, Lofty led us back, our route taking us close to the Indo base. Unlike other patrol leaders, who would march as second man, Lofty always took the lead scout role and led from the front. I was proud that he always wanted me as second man, trusting me to watch his back. The storm may have disguised the sound of the ambush and certainly disguised the noise we made crashing through the forest, but it wouldn't be long before the enemy was on our tail. We had seen numerous enemy tracks on our way in and had identified well-prepared, cleared paths that the Indos had probably used for rapid deployment from their camp, and even come across a few dozen Indonesian troops deep in the jungle. Fortunately, Lofty spotted them long before they even had the chance to realize that we were there. He led us on a long detour round them and was now running through all of the factors in his head, trying to avoid the pitfalls yet keeping us moving to cover as much ground as we could before nightfall.
He knew he could push us hard. He had no doubts about our fitness or energy levels. Having selected the observation post (OP) in the old rubber plantation and established that the Indo base was little more than a stone's throw away, he knew that we were pretty safe there. The Indos, fully aware that none of our patrols had ever found this particular base before, would never expect to find us right in their backyard. Lofty took advantage of that. Instead of following 'Hard Routine' jungle procedure with no hot drinks, no hot food, no talking and no smoking, he encouraged us to relax (within reason) while we observed the river. We smoked, brewed up tea or coffee every couple of hours and had a meal of curry and rice each evening. Instead of the gaunt, half-starved, wasted, ghost-like SAS creatures who normally emerged from a jungle operation, he wanted us to be on top form, strong and with good morale for what could be a difficult retreat to the LZ.
Once again, Lofty was right. By the time we stopped that night, backtracked and laid an ambush on the route we had just covered, we were all still in good shape. The next day, Lofty led us to the LZ, no mean feat in itself given that SAS LZs were deliberately located in areas that were particularly difficult to find, with no streams or regular tracks nearby. That made it less likely that the enemy would stumble across one of the prepared sites by chance. It was like finding one single football-pitch-sized clearing in an area of forest almost the size of the county of Kent, but Lofty got us there. We were back in Kuching before sunset that evening, looking forward to the long trip home. The Indos, on the other hand, were far from relaxed. Now they never quite knew when to expect another attack. Lofty's ambush on the Koemba forced them to commit hundreds of troops to defending their forward positions and eventually they pulled back from the border altogether.
So why does everything that you've just read make Lofty Large a hero? Just because he was exceptionally good at his job, and had mastered the skills of a soldier in a way that any of us would aspire to, doesn't make him that outstanding, does it? Perhaps not, but the fact that Lofty was still putting those skills to good use in Borneo, and beyond, is just one of the amazing things about this incredible man. Lofty, you see, should never have been with us in Borneo. Any betting shop would gladly have given you irresistible odds on Lofty never becoming part of the SAS. They'd have given you pretty good odds on Lofty never being able to make a career in the British Army. In fact, at one point they'd have happily taken your money if you'd offered a bet that young Donald Large would not live to see his 21st birthday.
Lofty had joined the army at the age of 15 in 1946 not because he couldn't get a job or because he was desperate to leave home – he simply wanted to be a soldier. He chose to become a 'band boy', even though he had little interest in playing or learning to play any musical instrument. He was a country boy, used to the outdoors and familiar with handling a firearm, albeit a shotgun, while stalking through the woods and hills around his family home in the Cotswolds. There were no vacancies for band boys in his county regiment, The Glosters, at the time, so he signed on with the Wiltshire Regiment. He then spent five years banging a drum on parade grounds in England and Germany before the Wiltshire Regiment was shipped out to Hong Kong. It was there that he requested a transfer to The Glosters and volunteered to go to Korea.
In between bouts of square- and drum-bashing, Lofty had been fairly well schooled in fieldcraft and weapons handling in the Wiltshire Regiment. Once he joined The Glosters, however, there was a whole new aspect to his training. Along with hundreds of other squaddies, he spent almost a week on a ship bound for Japan where they were re-equipped and put through a combat training course at the battle camp at Mara Hura. A few short weeks later, they were digging in on the frontline in Korea facing battle-hardened Chinese troops.
There had been fighting or civil unrest in Korea for as long as anyone living there could remember. The Japanese had been meddling in the country since before the end of the Russo-Japanese War in 1905, after which they placed the country under Japanese 'protection', and by 1910 they had effectively annexed the whole country, claiming it as a Japanese colony. They introduced a brutal, exploitative regime against which there was great political opposition within Korea as well as armed uprisings. The Japanese regime was rewriting Korean history, attempting to stamp out Korean culture and handing over great swathes of Korean farmland and forests to Japanese business interests. All opposition was ruthlessly crushed.
After World War II, when the Japanese were defeated, the Russians and Americans jointly occupied Korea, dividing their administration zones along the geographical line of the 38th parallel, which cut the country roughly in two. The Americans occupied the southern half, closest to Japan, with the Russians in the north where the country bordered China and, in the north-eastern coastal strip, the Soviet Union. This configuration was intended as a temporary arrangement until Korea could be stabilized under its own independent government. Unfortunately, Cold War politics prevented the establishment of a unified Korea. When the Russians and the Americans withdrew in 1948, they left behind the communist Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) in the north and the Republic of Korea (RoK) in the south. South Korea established military treaties with the United States and North Korea had military aid from the Soviets.
Each of the two new Korean states promised its people a united Korea and there were regular clashes along the 38th parallel border, culminating in North Korean forces launching an invasion of the south in June 1950. The South Koreans were quickly overwhelmed by the massive onslaught, the north being supremely well equipped with Soviet-supplied tanks and aircraft. South Korea appealed to the United States and the United Nations (UN) for help, but there were no US combat units left in Korea. American forces were dispatched from Japan, but by August the communists had the South Koreans and Americans contained in a small pocket of south-eastern Korea around the city of Pusan. Retaining a foothold on the Korean peninsula allowed the Americans to build up their resources and use their air power to deny the communists a complete takeover of the south. They disrupted the North Korean supply lines and eventually forced the communists to retreat back beyond the 38th parallel. UN forces working with the Americans and the South Koreans included troops from Britain, Canada, Australia, The Philippines, Turkey, The Netherlands, France, New Zealand, Thailand, Ethiopia, Greece, Colombia, Belgium, South Africa, and even Luxembourg.
As the UN drove north into the DPRK, the communist government in China began to worry that the Western powers might not stop at the Chinese border. In any case, they did not want a new pro-American, anti-communist state to be created on their border, so they threw the might of the Chinese People's Volunteer Army (PVA) behind the North Koreans. The UN forces were pushed back south beyond the 38th parallel, but as the battle lines ebbed and flowed across the countryside the UN troops soon reclaimed some territory in the north.
It was into this catastrophic Cold War confrontation that Lofty was inserted in late March 1951. Eventually, after a long series of train and truck journeys, he and 30 other new Glosters were delivered to B Company's positions in the low hills above the Imjin River. The Glosters' job, as part of the 29th Brigade, was to defend the routes through the valleys that the Chinese could use if they launched an offensive south towards the South Korean capital, Seoul. At the time when Lofty arrived, no such offensive was expected. A few days later, on 22 April, that changed. Chinese troops were spotted in the hills on the far north bank of the river and that night there were exchanges of mortar and machine-gun fire, with Chinese patrols probing forward towards the Glosters' positions, lobbing grenades and generally making a nuisance of themselves.
The next day, the battle of Imjin River started in earnest. The Chinese had been making ground during the night and B Company was withdrawn to new positions, clearing the enemy from a rocky hilltop in a short firefight. Lofty had no chance of digging a trench on this new hill as the ground was so hard, but he scraped away what soil there was and prepared his fire position alongside two other men to cover the slope below them. Chinese soldiers were spotted in the surrounding hills and Lofty's section came under sporadic sniper fire throughout the day. They could hear the thunder of artillery and air strikes as distant battles raged to the north and west, but there was nothing close enough to cause them any immediate problems.
That night, Lofty huddled down in his fire position behind the low wall of dirt and rubble they had scraped together and slept. He was rudely awoken sometime before dawn by the crash of a mortar shell falling nearby. Wide awake in an instant, he could hear the whistle of more incoming shells and an eruption of explosions that were soon joined by the agonized screams of the wounded and the clatter of machine-gun fire. Propping himself up behind the protection of the breastwork, through the dust and smoke he could see scores of men scrambling up the hill towards them in the moonlight. They were firing a hail of bullets from their SMGs (submachine-guns) that sent grit and rock splinters spouting into the air all over the hilltop. Although each section of Glosters had its own Bren light machine-gun, individual soldiers were armed with the Lee-Enfield No.4 bolt action rifle. It was an accurate weapon at long range, but could never match the rate of fire of the Chinese troops' automatics. Nevertheless, Lofty and his mates worked the bolts, squeezed the triggers and emptied their ten-round magazines as fast as they could, firing at fleeting targets or the muzzle flashes of enemy weapons. The voices of officers and NCOs calling orders or identifying targets cut through the clamour of the battle, drowned out only when mortar shells exploded nearby, the blast waves squeezing the breath out of the lucky ones, tearing the limbs from the less fortunate. The occasional lull in the mortar barrage brought with it no respite: it simply meant that the enemy assault troops were once again high on the slope, close to overrunning The Glosters.
During the night of 23 April, the men of The Glosters fought off seven major assaults. When dawn came in the Land of the Morning Calm (as Korea was named over 4,000 years ago) the battle raged on. They fought with bayonets and bare hands when the Chinese threatened to overwhelm them and, when the units on their flanks were pushed back, the Glosters were cut off, surrounded on their hilltop by Chinese infantry. Lofty and the others did not know it at the time, but fewer than 800 Glosters had held up the advance of three Chinese divisions totalling around 27,000 men. On the morning of 24 April, however, with ammunition running low, their situation was utterly desperate. All efforts by American and UN forces to break through to the besieged Glosters had failed. The bigger picture, however, was not Lofty's immediate concern. There were now just two of them firing from behind the low wall. Peppered with shrapnel and rock splinters, they were filthy and exhausted. With the morning sunshine cutting through the battle's haze, Lofty flung a hand grenade over the wall, squeezed off a couple of shots at two Chinese sneaking round their flank, then popped his head up to pick off anyone below him who had survived the grenade. Suddenly, Lofty's rifle was blasted to pieces in his hands and he was hurled backwards. He had been caught with a burst of machine-gun fire and two rounds had torn into his left shoulder. As he lay on his back, unable to move, the next thing he expected to see was a Chinese gun barrel. But it never came. A mortar bombardment right in front of Lofty's position forced the Chinese back, although the hilltop continued to be raked by machine-gun fire.
Lofty was dragged out of the firing line, his wound was dressed and he soon found that he was able to stand and to walk. In great pain and with the two rounds still inside his shoulder, he joined a party of walking wounded trying to find a way through the Chinese lines to the south. The Glosters were ultimately forced to surrender. They had suffered appalling casualties and B Company had been reduced to just 15 men, but they had held up the Chinese long enough for the UN forces to regroup and halt the Chinese advance. Even had they known this, it would have been little consolation for the men who were taken prisoner, as Lofty's ragged bunch of walking wounded was. They were forced to march north for ten days, with no food at all for the first week, and then only a handful of rice when food did finally arrive. At some point Lofty's wounds were cleaned and re-dressed by Chinese medics, but that was the last medical attention he was to receive for the next two years. His paralyzed left arm caused constant pain that was matched only by the ache from his side where one of the machine-gun bullets had ricocheted off a bone in his shoulder and ploughed downwards, breaking a couple of ribs. The long march was almost intolerable, but Lofty survived. There were many wounded in the column of 200 – 300 prisoners who did not.
Their final destination was a prison camp just outside the town of Chongsung in North Korea. There were no walls or fences surrounding the camp, just a guard positioned here and there around the perimeter. The prisoners were crowded ten to a room in basic huts and slept on the floor. There was little food and dysentery was rife, as was malaria. In the winter they huddled together under their blankets to keep warm. The Chinese troops fared little better. Some of them froze to death at their guard posts. It was in this camp that Lofty celebrated his 21st birthday.
Lofty lived with the pain in his side until March 1953 when he was operated on in the camp hospital by a Chinese doctor who removed a tracer round from his ribs. In fact, they were 'tidying him up' prior to releasing him as part of a prisoner exchange. By the time he was back in the hands of the British Army, he had regained a little movement in his arm and hand but still had no real control. The doctors told him that had he not been captured by the Chinese he might well have had his arm amputated by the British!
When he arrived back home, Lofty was expected to leave the army. He was offered a discharge on medical grounds but refused. He wanted to remain a soldier. He worked on his fitness and on rehabilitating his arm. It was to take him years before the army eventually declared him fully fit again. In the meantime, he had a stint in The Glosters' regimental police, worked as an instructor and in the quartermaster's stores. He also married Ann, the girl he had met when he stopped over in the UK before leaving for Hong Kong. She had written to him constantly when he was in the prisoner of war (POW) camp, and they became utterly devoted to one another, inseparable except for those times when Lofty was posted overseas. In 1957, you see, having fought his way back to fitness, Lofty volunteered for the SAS.
Lofty wanted to have a crack at real soldiering once again. He went on the SAS Selection course and passed, only to crash his motorbike immediately afterwards. His ankle was badly injured and he spent several weeks trying to put it right before he had to take the course all over again. In fact, his ankle was so swollen and painful on his second course that he had to wear a boot one size too big to fit over the bandages. Not only did he pass Selection twice, but he did so the second time in odd boots.
I first met Lofty shortly after I joined the Regiment. I had been posted to D Squadron's Boat Troop, but was quickly transferred to the Rover Troop where the legendary Lofty Large was the troop sergeant. Having been in Malaya and on operation in Oman in 1958/59, Lofty had recently returned from a stint as an instructor with 23 SAS, part of the TA. Now he was raring to go, anxious to get back to soldiering again. He didn't have long to wait. Following training exercises in the UK and in Aden, we were shipped out to Borneo. When our tour finished there, we were back in Hereford again before a desert training course in Libya and deployment to Aden.
All in all, I spent some of the wettest and driest days of my life with Lofty. I learned a great deal from him about being a soldier, and also discovered one of his greatest fears – he suffered from vertigo. A fear of heights is a difficult thing when part of your job is to jump out of aeroplanes, but then Lofty never pretended that parachuting was one of his favourite things. Who could blame him? The old 'X-type' parachute that we all first learned to jump with was standard issue in the British Army from World War II right up to the early 1960s. The only trouble with it was that it didn't have a very big canopy – a diameter of just under 24ft (7.3m) – pretty poor compared to the huge sports parachutes that are available today. The theory was that a large canopy would slow the descent of a soldier in combat too much, leaving him liable to drift with the wind and miss his DZ, or leaving him hanging in the air too long, presenting an easy target for any enemy on the ground. In practice, the size of the X-type meant that a little skinny bloke could float down like a leaf on the breeze and barely break a blade of grass when he hit the ground. Your average squaddy laden with kit, on the other hand, would make a far more robust descent. Lofty, tipping the scales at over 17 stone (108kg) before you added on the massive amount of kit we had to jump with and the extra rations he always carried to feed his enormous appetite, dropped out of the sky like a house.
His first ever training jump with full equipment, which included an equipment container strapped to his right leg, was almost his last. Being 6ft 6in (1.98m) tall, Lofty was obliged to nod his head forward to duck under the lip of the aircraft's fuselage door. Nodding his head forward like that, combined with the unbalancing weight of the equipment container, made him perform a beautiful forward roll on exiting the plane. Although he didn't realize it at first, this meant that his legs became entangled in the rigging lines. When he looked in the direction he thought was 'up' to check his canopy, what he actually saw was a white circle with a red cross on it – the roof of the medical team's ambulance that was waiting for him on the ground! He managed to kick one of his legs free and released the equipment container, which was designed to dangle on a cord as the paratrooper descended. This action pulled him half-way vertical – he still had one leg stuck in the rigging and was now heading for a landing flat on his back. Kicking the rigging lines off his entangled leg with his free boot, his feet swung into the vertical just in time to touch the ground. He reckoned it was the best landing he'd ever made.
Lofty's parachute experience goes to show that nobody's perfect – you can't be the best at everything. But I would defy most trainee paratroopers to keep their heads while plummeting earthwards and extricate themselves from that upside-down drop in the way that Lofty did. His clear thinking and calm demeanour, no matter how panicked he may have been feeling inside at times, was an inspiration to those around him. He was the epitome of a professional soldier, with an admirable sense of fair play and compassion. Once when we were in Aden in 1964, we found ourselves stuck on a hilltop, too far from the exchange of fire that we could see to be able to make any real impression except with the Bren gun that I was carrying. Lofty told me to give the group of rebel gunmen that we could see a few bursts, knowing that this would drive them into cover and give our lads, at whom they had been firing, less of a problem. Sure enough, the rebels tucked themselves away behind some rocks. An expert in directing mortar and artillery fire, Lofty then called in a mortar bombardment of the rebels' position among the rocks, bringing in such accurate fire that the rebels took a real pasting. When the smoke cleared, we were amazed to see one of them stumble out into the open, clearly disorientated but otherwise unharmed. I made to get him in the sights of my Bren gun but Lofty, perhaps remembering being on the receiving end of a bombardment in Korea, simply said, 'If he can survive that lot he deserves a break. Let him go.'
About a year after we came back from Aden, Lofty left the troop to spend the rest of his service as an instructor with the reservists in 23 SAS. I never felt the same after he had left. In fact, I transferred to a different troop, joining the free-fall mob in 16 Troop. The SAS had become my home, but without Lofty there it seemed about the right time for a change of room.