Recaps on Lantau Island
A Summer Camp To Remember
By Roy Oswick….
Contrary to popular belief amongst the vast majority of the British armed forces, the Royal Military Police, better known as Redcaps, do not have a privileged existence and are required to be as battle fit as any other soldier and in some cases such as Para Provost and close protection units, probably even more so. In the early 70’s I was privileged to serve with the most loyal true warriors that the British Army has ever had at its disposal, I refer of course to the Ghurkas.
These fine men served the British Army so very well but are now much depleted which is a sad loss.
However at the time they still fulfilled a major role, and especially in oriental stations such as Hong Kong, I was privileged to be stationed in the new territories of Hong Kong based at Sek Kong quite near to the small town of Fan Ling.
My unit was 48 Ghurka infantry brigade provost unit Royal Military Police. In all we numbered about 30 Corporals and Lance Corporals overseen by a Sergeant and commanded by an officer with the rank of Captain.
Our role was primarily to maintain discipline in what was virtually a garrison area with not only Ghurka soldiers but also a complete regiment of Royal Artillery, two battalions of infantry and ‘A’ squadron of the Life Guards.
Fan ling was situated close to the border with mainland china and although not large it boasted a considerable number of bars and nightclubs which doubled as houses of ill repute and were therefore out of bounds to forces personnel.
So maintaining military discipline in the area was not easy as we were totally outnumbered by other regiments, and of course we were also responsible for the security of the border with China and this entailed patrols along its length, mainly on foot, and close liaison with the Hong Kong police who had posts at various points.
All in all we led a varied and busy life with little time for relaxation, and this is where my story begins.
Towards the middle of summer in 1970 we were informed that the officer commanding would be leaving and that a new O.C would take up the post very shortly. We were all sorry to hear this because just for once we had an officer in charge who actually knew the role that we had, understood the men and enjoyed their complete trust. Nonetheless the day came that he departed and within a week the new officer commanding took over.
We quickly became aware that we had inherited a completely different character and life for us changed quickly and dramatically.
The new officer commanding decided that he would hold regular daily briefings to which all of us that were in camp would be required to attend.
At each of these meetings he would describe to us in great detail just how disappointed he was to have been posted to us as he had hoped for a job at the Ministry of Defence and he was not happy to find himself in charge of such a small unit with such limited opportunities for him to display his military skills.
All very depressing for us as we thought that we had probably one of the most prestigious postings available, Hong Kong, working with the Ghurka’s, good accommodation, overseas pay allowances, for those that were married we had excellent housing, a live-in house servant, great weather, cheap booze, and a fair amount of time off to enjoy life.
After a few of these meetings the O.C declared that he considered morale to be low and our state of fitness not up to standard. He proposed that we would all benefit from a period of team building and military skills improvement and declared that he had made arrangements for us all to take part in a summer camp on the island of Lantau, just off the coast of the mainland Kowloon peninsula.
He then asked if we had any questions and was overwhelmed with the response which was clearly not what he had expected.
The questions asked were as follows:
- Was he aware that we were entering the monsoon season when the weather could and often was foul with gale force winds and hours of pouring rain.
Response; not a problem. We have excellent tents and we will have radio contact with the mainland in the event that we need assistance.
- Was he aware that apart from a Chinese monastery and a few fishermen Lantau island was uninhabited.
Response; we will be taking everything we need, including generators fresh water and stock from the corporals club, also we will be sending a driver and our one ton truck back to the mainland at regular intervals to re- supply collect mail etc.
- Was he aware that the island was possibly subject to administration by China and that his matter was currently under discussion between the governor of Hong Kong and the Chinese government and that we may find ourselves in a difficult position should we occupy the island without the consent of the Chinese government.
Response; not a problem he had checked and the agreement between Britain and China regarding the leasing of Hong Kong included the island of Hong Kong, the new territories and the small islands off the Kowloon peninsula, including Lantau.
- Has the brigade commander sanctioned this event and how will we get there.
Response; no need for the brigade commander to be notified, this is a unit exercise conducted and supervised by the officer commanding 48 Ghurka infantry brigade provost unit. As for getting to the island the Royal Corps of Transport Maritime unit in Hong Kong had several landing craft (lct’s) and the officer commanding them was more than happy to give his chaps a chance to practice.
Many other questions followed but it was obvious that our concerns were falling on deaf ears and we were committed. Therefore several days later we found ourselves with all our kit, stores, tents and vehicles aboard 3 tank landing craft heading for Lantau.
To say that we were unenthusiastic would be putting it mildly, but there we were so we had to get on with it. Upon landing and getting ashore we made our way to the site that the officer had chosen to set up camp.
I was immediately concerned since the location was at the foot of a very steep hill, and with the weather so likely to be wet i suggested that we might be well advised to look elsewhere because when it did rain, and it most certainly would, we would be quickly waterlogged and flooded out. I was quickly and firmly reminded that i was only a corporal and that the officer’s orders were not to be questioned.
Reluctantly we got ourselves sorted and with tents erected and the field kitchen set up we enjoyed a hearty campsite meal before we settled in for the night and prepared ourselves for the next morning’s meeting when the O.C would describe the day’s activities and training objectives.
Sadly we never actually got to that stage because as we had feared, just after night fell, the heavens opened and the rain poured down.
Within minutes a torrent of water was running through the camp site propelled along its way by the downhill gradient at the bottom of which we were camped.
In the tropics, nights are pitch black and this was especially so on Lantau where there was no form of ambient lighting to assist in dispelling the complete darkness. As might have been expected the mobile generator that we had brought with us which was for safety reasons outside and not under cover took only a few minutes of being subjected to the utter deluge of water that fell, for it to become waterlogged and fail. We were therefore left to scramble about with only flashlights to see by, in a vain attempt to salvage anything that we could since along with the rain the wind was now blowing at a ferocious pace and it quickly became clear that we could do nothing other than seek shelter and this we did by cramming ourselves into our land rovers and the one ton truck where we spent the remainder of the night. Needless to say there was much moaning and groaning from all of us concerning the madness of the decision to take a summer camp during the monsoon season, and the locating of the camp at the foot of a hill, morale was not high and it was of no surprise that the O.C kept a very low profile throughout the night, confining himself to the front seat of a Landrover with the heater on and trying very hard to give the appearance of being asleep.
After what seemed an eternity the rain subsided, the wind fell, and the sun rose.
The camp site was a total mess with tents blown down by the wind, the ground sodden, and worst of all the field kitchen and food stores were washed away and had disappeared somewhere down the hill. It was clearly going to take an awful lot of work to try to salvage anything of use or value, and we had another 6 days to go before this madness was ended, and in all probability the weather of last night could be repeated at any time.
At about 08.30 hrs the O.C called us together for his meeting as planned. He proceeded to explain that although we had got off to a difficult start, the camp would go ahead. He proposed to send two of us to the nearest village which was about 5 miles away and where he believed that there was a police post that would have communication with the mainland. His plan was to make contact with the transport company and have them send a tank landing craft to us that day so that we could send the one ton truck back to base for replacement stores and food.
Myself and one other were ordered to go to the nearest village and try to make contact with the mainland. We had been trying since the end of the storm to make radio contact and had been unable to do so. It was clear from the tone of voice and the body language of the O.C that he was now a very worried man.
Although I expressed my doubts about finding a way to communicate with the mainland to our sergeant he said that we had to at least try, and that while we were away he would attempt to convince the O.C that this was all a very bad idea and that we needed to evacuate the island as soon as we could.
So, my partner and I set of to try to find a village. Now Land Rovers are very versatile vehicles and designed specifically for off road driving but the conditions that we faced really put the vehicle under operational pressure. For a start there was no road as such, only a part worn track that had probably been made by some goat herder. It was barely a meter wide and the surface was almost pure mud. Even in four wheel drive and low gear ratio the Landrover struggled to maintain grip and forward movement, even though the route was quite steeply downhill.
After about an hour we did see in the distance what appeared to be a village and cautiously made our way to it. Much to our relief we made it safely and were at once surrounded by about 20 or so Chinese people who were all clearly surprised at our arrival and talked excitedly amongst themselves. Despite our best efforts it was quickly apparent that none of them spoke English and our knowledge of any dialect of Chinese was woeful. One of the group made it known to us by way of hand gestures that he was the village head man and that we should go with him. He moved off and we followed cautiously in the Landrover. The village turned out to be of reasonable size with a number of houses and shacks and one building in particular that had the image of being of some importance and it was into this building that the chief headed and directed us to follow. We did and were at once impressed by the construction of the building which had the air of a government building . We were led to the door of what was clearly an office for on the door was a brass plate bearing Chinese writing and as plain as day in English the words ‘Chief of Police’.
Our guide knocked on the door and we heard a voice from inside the office respond. The door then opened and there stood a real life Chinese police officer dressed in full uniform with a vast array of medals on display across his chest. After a very brief conversation with our guide he turned to us and said in a perfect Oxford English accent” good morning gentlemen. The head man tells me that you have suddenly arrived in the village and he has no idea what it is that you want or where you have come from. So, who are you,? What are you doing here on Lantau, and how can we be of assistance?”
We gave a full account of ourselves, who we were what we were doing and the situation that we were in.
In return he said that he had been until recently a Police Officer in Hong Kong and that he had been posted to Lantau following his promotion to Inspector. He went on to say that this was only a short term posting and that after 12 months he would return to the mainland.
Without invitation a uniformed police officer entered with a tray on which were cups of tea (English style) and a plate of digestive biscuits which my partner and i quickly devoured having not eaten since the early hours.
We spent a few minutes chatting and then asked if there was any way we could contact the mainland. He smiled and said “but of course we have a telephone line from this office. It is the only one on the island and only here because it is a police line and should be used for emergencies only”
Given our circumstances he conceded that this was an emergency, but went on to criticize us for being foolish enough to attempt to camp during the monsoon season.
We agreed wholeheartedly and promised that as soon as we were able to arrange a pick up from the mainland we would leave and be of no further trouble to him or the local population, and so it was that were able telephone our base only to be told that the DAPM Hong Kong had been to our base and was trying to find our officer commanding. It seemed that he was less than pleased to find our base all but deserted with only a small rear party left behind and with no means of communication. However we were able to establish the fact that we needed to be collected as soon as possible and were assured that the rear party would organize things. This was going to take a couple of hours and we were told to call back later.
After some persuasion our new found Chief of Police agreed to let us use his prized telephone later in the day.
By this time it was almost mid day and we needed to get back to camp with a report on progress. I was not looking forward to telling the officer commanding that we would be terminating the summer camp earlier than anticipated. My friends and I back at base had concocted a story that the landing craft would only be available to us for the next day, and that the DAPM wanted to see the O.C as soon as possible. Not quite true but who cared.
We bid farewell to the police chief and said that we would return later to make the phone call. We then set off in the Landrover in an attempt to drive back to camp. Going back was even more full of hazards than the trip out as we were now almost constantly going uphill and the condition of the track was even worse than it had been earlier.
I can recall seeing a man on the hillside with what appeared to be a herd of cows and hearing my partner shout “look out Roy” as we tried to navigate a sharp bend in the track.
That was about the last thing I remember until I found myself lying on my back and looking up at what appeared to be a band of ghosts surrounding me and looking down at me. They were all in long white robes with white beards and all holding a burning candle in front of them. I clearly remember that they were chanting something and thinking to myself, this is it then, no more of the good life for you mate. I truly thought that this must be heaven. I was told later that when I became conscious it was only for a few seconds and that I sat upright and said clearly and distinctly, “OK then, which one of you lot is St. Peter?” and then falling back into unconsciousness.
The only thing I can remember after that is waking up in the British military hospital in Hong Kong.
It seems that as we were driving back to the camp on Lantau one of the cows that I had seen on the hill ran down and into our path, I had slammed on the brakes but at that point the track fell apart and we simply slid off the track and down the hillside. The Landrover had rolled several times before coming to rest against the only large rock on the hillside, which had prevented it from descending a further 200 feet into the sea. Apparently I was found sitting beside the front wheel on the driver’s side with the ignition keys in my hand having switched off the engine and applied the hand brake!!! (good training will always take over).
My mate had been thrown clear and had managed to attract the attention of the herdsman who had rushed to the village and alerted our policeman. Somehow they had got to our camp raised the alarm and between our men and the villagers managed to get me up the hill and to the nearest place of safety which happened to be a Chinese monastery and the vision that I had seen were the monks who were praying for my safety.
The Police Chief had again used his emergency telephone and arranged for me to be air lifted from the island to the hospital.
Fortunately my partner had escaped serious injury, but I had two broken legs, a dislodged shoulder, fractured vertebrae and lacerated scalp. The injuries kept me in hospital for 7 weeks after which I returned to duty.
I was pleased to learn that the remainder of the summer camp had been cancelled, and that the officer commanding had been replaced.
Just to make my return to duty even more memorable was the fact that on the day that I returned to duty I was informed by the sergeant that I had been charged with a disciplinary offence and would be adjudicated upon the following day by the new officer commanding. The next morning I was duly marched into the O.C’s office to face the charge which the O.C read to me. i.e in any way offends against military discipline and the army act 1957. His words went something like this.
OC.; “Well Corporal Oswick, seems to me that we have a number of issues to deal with here. First off I hear from the sergeant that you openly questioned the officer commanding decision to hold a summer camp on Lantau island is that true?
Me; “yes sir”
O.C; “on arrival at the camp site I understand that you again questioned the officer commanding decision to site the camp at that location. Is that true?
Me; “yes sir”
O.C; it has further been brought to my attention that the Landrover that was on signature to you was damaged to such an extent that it had to be scrapped and was beyond economical repair. Are you aware of that?
Me; “yes sir”
O.C; lastly Corporal Oswick I understand that for the last 7 weeks you have been excused duty and have been on what could be considered absence without leave by languishing in the British military hospital is that true?”
Me ; “well not languishing sir, more recovering from my injuries”
O.C; don’t split hairs with me corporal understand?
Me; “yes sir”
O.C; “now a much more serious matter. I understand that prior to this incident you attended the senior promotion course. Is that true?”
Me; “yes sir”
O.C; well you can forget all the other stuff. The real reason I had you called before me is to tell you that you passed the course with distinction. I would like to offer my sincere congratulations and tell you that you are promoted to the rank of sergeant with immediate effect. Very well done and we will see you in the bar at lunch time. Dismiss”
Me; “thank you sir”
The sergeant “you had better go to the bank. The whole unit will be in the bar and the O.C has stood them down for the rest of the day. Welcome back”