Our History 1960—1969
1960 opened with a cable drama so often the bane of the linemen, the accidental cutting of main trunk cables by an outside agency. The Singapore City Council started work on a project to lay a new power cable from Korean Test Hut, at the 9.5 m.s. Upper Changi Road to Changi Gaol. As so often happens no clearance was obtained from the Regiment and in a short space of time four major trunk cables had been cut in several places. UG Troop at Changi were put on 24-hour working for a period of three weeks to restore the main trunk circuits into Singapore and in all some two miles of 14-pair cable had to be replaced.
Tengah Troop’s work was now increasing as the airfield was being further developed into a major operational station. A new runway was being constructed, together with new hangars and this necessitated a major diversion of cables as well as the laying of new cables to cater for the increased requirement for operational circuits. A new 10 + 50 switchboard was installed as the operations switchboard. A new ATC tower was brought into operation in July 1961 and telebriefing circuits for the Hunter and Javelin Squadrons were installed in September.
Malaya Squadron, which had been in abeyance as a sub unit with its personnel distributed between the airfield troops, now reformed and started collective training foi its task of providing field communications for airfields. This training consisted of a series of working up exercises culminating in their first two major exercises in Malaya on the airfield of Kangar Kahang near Kluang. These exercises were designed to practise the installation of communications required on a Phase One rehabilitation of a disused airfield, prior to the RAF flying in and the coincidental build up of an operational airfield.
Some considerable success was achieved by 1 Squadron in July 1960 on the main trunk cables between RAF Changi and Paya Lebar civil airport; these were the famous or infamous “80 series”, cables 80, 81 and 82 which in the past, and since, have given continual trouble to the line parties. The Squadron had been working on these cables for some nine months searching for and straightening joints and also making a record of their location for the first time. Finally all crossed pairs had been cleared and the insulation resistance brought up to specification. As Paya Lebar airport developed these cables had to be further re-routed. There seem to be two major factors which led to the high fault incidence on this route. The lay was along the Tampines Road, which is a particularly low-lying area and very vulnerable to flooding and in addition the route itself was in a development area both for private housing and the enlargement of the civil airport at Paya Lebar.
Conversion to Automatic Telephone exchanges
Singapore military exchanges were planned to be converted to automatic in 1961 and RAF Changi was to be the first installation. Preparatory work was now started in Block 20 to accept the exchange and excavations began on the main cable chamber which was to be the main feed of all administrative subscriber cables. The PABX double-sided frame was flown out from UK in February 1961 and the Installation Troop started to assemble and wire up. In August a new duct was built across the face of Block 20, and cables, some forty in all ranging from 40 to 104 pairs, were relaid and the main cable entry re-organised. Various other cable projects associated with the changeover to automatic were carried out in the following months but by April 1962 it was clear that a new target date for completion had to be set.
Further technical equipment arrived from UK and the building was completely air-conditioned, much to the discomfort of some Malay members of the installation team who complained of the cold and tried to warm the rooms up by leaving the sealing doors open! Finally at 1800 hours on 5th October 1962 the automatic exchange at RAF Changi was ‘switched on’. The cut-over from manual to auto working took two minutes and no troubles at all were encountered.
The end of Hong Kong Troop
On 1st April 1962 the Regiment lost one of its many outposts when the Hong Kong Troop ceased to be part of the Unit and became the Air Formation Troop of 253 Signal Squadron. All the MORs of the troop were gradually replaced by HK OR and then returned to Singapore to be absorbed in other troops.
Having lost one outpost the Regiment very quickly gained another, this time in Northern Thailand at Chieng Mai as a result of the build up of American forces as a buffer for Thailand after the threat of war in Laos. Six Hunter aircraft from RAF Tengah were deployed on the Chieng Mai airfield and a small detachment from Operations Troop was flown in to provide the airfield communications. Although personnel were changed at intervals the detachment remained in Thailand until 23rd November 1962.
On 22nd October 1962 a further change of personalities took place when Lieutenant Colonel W.R.G. Hencher, MBE assumed command from Lieutenant Colonel J.W. Easton.
The start of Confrontation with Indonesia began with the revolt in Brunei on 8th December 1962. This immediately involved the Regiment in an operational commitment and at long last Malaya Squadron, which had been formed for such an eventuality, was put to the test. The first detachment from Operations Troop arrived in Labuan for active service on 12 December and two further detachments and an officer moved in the next week. Initially they were deployed at Labuan and Brunei airfields, activating these to operational readiness. A 40-line F & F switchboard was installed at Labuan and a small 10-line magneto at Brunei. The detachment was also given the task in providing some of the communications for HQ COMBRITBOR in Brunei Town, where a further 40-line F & F switchboard was installed for Force HQ. By the end of the month one officer and 14 men were deployed in the Borneo Territories. However in the New Year as the situation became more stable it was possible to withdraw two of the detachments leaving behind a few men on the two airfields to maintain the line systems. This maintenance task involved the rehabilitation of UG cables mainly on Labuan airfield and this work continued for the next two months. In addition some minor telephone installations at Kuching were completed in February.
Tengah Automatic Exchange
Back in Singapore the second automatic exchange was completed at RAF Tengah and the cut-over to automatic working took place on 13th March 1963. Work had also been in progress for some time on the new Master Radar Station at Bukit Gombak, a hill site on the north west part of the island near Tengah. This radar station became the main Air Defence Control Centre for Singapore and Malaysia and was later in 1965/66 complemented by a further station on Western Hill Penang. In June 1963 the Regiment’s work on the wiring and cabling at the Bukit Gombak station was completed and on 10th June the station became fully operational. In this month Operations Troop, less the detachment in Labuan, was deployed in Thailand for a major SEATO exercise, DHANARAJATA. Airfield exchanges were installed at Lopburi, Korat, Chieng Mai and Ubon, for the RAF units deployed in support of 28 Commonwealth Infantry Brigade.
Askar Askar Bujang
The LEP element of the Regiment were living at this time in the old Japanese-built wooden blocks in Camp Askar2 Bujang (Single Soldiers Camp). Cooking facilities had however been fairly primitive and a project had been put in hand to modernise the cookhouse. In August 1963 this was completed and the kitchen was converted with up to date equipment to an all-electric system. The barrack accommodation was still far from satisfactory in the wooden huts which with their galvanised iron roofs and no fans must have been veritable hot-houses for those living in them.
Seletar goes Automatic
At the end of the year on 27th December it was Seletar’s turn to go automatic, the penultimate exchange on the island to be converted. When the last one was completed it would then be possible to have complete inter-dialling between all three Services’ exchanges on Singapore.
Ops troop in Borneo.
Confrontation still brought calls on the Regiment for installation and repair work in Borneo. The Operations Troop now found itself involved in radio-relay when in January 1964 a small team as sent to Kuching to install a B 70 radio-relay link between Kuching Airport and West Brigade in Kuching Town. This was to be a back-up in the event of a breakdown in the civil line communications. COMBRITBOR then moved from Borneo to a new combined headquarters in Labuan where a line detachment was sent to assist in the combined services project for the new headquarters. The threat of increased Indonesian air activity necessitated the basing of fighter aircraft at Kuching and this in turn meant that the airfield communication system had to be made more sophisticated. A project was planned which included the laying of cable tails for the transmitter site, the T-type radar convoy, aircraft dispersals and navaids. An additional 10 + 50 exchange was also included. The installation task was undertaken by two detachments of Malaya Troop, and for the first time these included some LEP tradesmen.
The “80” series cables came into the news again as a result of an accident at Paya Lebar on 22nd March 1964. A Comet IV airliner had crash-landed and caught fire but fortunately the fire was extinguished quickly and there were no casualties. The standby UG fault party heard the news in the same way as everyone else in Singapore but thought no more until the following morning when routine testing revealed that the “80” series cables were full earth on all pairs. The fault was traced to somewhere on Paya Lebar Airport and the Chief of the Fire Brigade reluctantly gave permission for an officer to explore the area of the Comet crash provided NO naked flame was used. A torchlight search under the runway revealed a charred and melted armoured cable suspended inside the 7 ft. diameter culvert and it was apparent that the burning jet fuel had scorched the whole area. Sometime after midnight, and after several tests for safe exposure of naked flame, the line party set to work and pieced in a length of cable. By dawn a rather exhausted line party had completed their task and the pairs were through once more.
In August 1964 Malaya Troop took over all commitments in North Borneo in order to release Operations Troop for another major SEATO Exercise in Thailand, called AIR BOON CHOO. Three detachments were deployed to the exercise headquarters at Don Muang and the airfields at Korat and Udorn. One of the most complex of circuits from an engineering point of view was a link from HQ FEAF in Singapore to the Exercise HQ at Don Muang. The routing was from RAF Circuit Control at Changi, through Main System Control (Army) Singapore, then via the Golden Arrow (SWB 8) to Bangkok and on to the US Army Microwave System into Don Muang and finally over a D10 field cable run to the terminal. It worked!
In North Borneo the project installation teams at Labuan and Kuching completed their work and returned to Singapore. However a further outpost of the Regiment was added to the already impressive list when another airfield required activating, namely Tawau in Sabah; this involved the usual exchange installation and cable tails to the Technical and Domestic sites.
Civil Disturbances in Singapore.
On 21st July 1964 civil disturbances broke out in Singapore in the form of racial clashes between the Malay and Chinese communities. A Defence Squadron of 90 men was formed at Changi but it was not required to deploy. An island-wide curfew was imposed which restricted movement to essential transport only, such as line detachments, and these had to have an armed escort. Since all the LEP wore the Songkok, the Malay headdress, the Commanding Officer decided that this might aggravate the inter-racial tension and so ordered all ranks to wear berets and battle-order during the crisis. Fortunately the Regiment was not involved in any incidents and only one civilian was unable to report for duty as he lived in the heart of the trouble area.
Just as this crisis passed, two more arose in September when further communal troubles broke out in Singapore and coupled with this there was a strong possibility of air attack by Indonesia. The Regiment really found its resources stretched to meet all its commitments. The Defence Squadron was once more put on to the second standby stage and the whole Unit went on to full 7-days a week working. Plans were made for alternative emergency system controls and field exchanges should the permanent installations at Changi, Seletar and Tengah be knocked out. Standby fault parties were doubled and damage control and rescue parties formed and trained. The two major diversionary airfields in Malaya at Kuantan and Alor Star were opened and detachments of Operations Troop installed exchanges and cable systems.
At the end of 1964 it is of interest that the Regiment was responsible for ten airfields in the Far East namely RAF Gan in the Indian Ocean; RAF Changi, Seletar and Tengah on Singapore Island; RAF Kuching, Labuan and Tawau in North Borneo; RAF Kuantan, Alor Star and RAAF Butterworth in Malaya. As well as these airfields there were smaller installations in Singapore such as the Radar Site at Bukit Gombak, the RAF transmitter and receiver stations at Jurong, Amoy Quee and Chia Keng and the civil airport at Paya Lebar. In all, this empire covered 3,200 miles from East to West and 700 miles from North to South; surely one of the most widely dispersed Regiments in the British Army.
The big “Hook up”
The following incident was reported in the local press and for members of Operations Troop, who by now had all done at least one tour of duty in Labuan, it was praise indeed for their efforts. The first detachment set up a 40-line F & F switchboard in December 1962, since when it had served as the station telephone exchange. Plans were in hand for this to be replaced by a 10+50 and ultimately by a 100-line PABX. An RAF Corporal sitting at his desk with his Tele J for his local routine calls heard the instrument ring. A voice said, “Corporal Bush? A call from London.” The astonished Corporal, wondering whether it was a “leg-pull” then heard another voice and found himself talking to his wife 9,000 miles away. The call had been routed to India and thence by radio to Labuan, Borneo and finally through our 40-line F & F to the Tele ‘J’ — is this a record for this humble field instrument?
Lieutenant Colonel W.R.G. Hencher, MBE concluded his tenure of command in April 1965 and returned to UK as Deputy OIC Royal Signals Records, and Lieutenant Colonel R.H. Maxfield assumed command of the Regiment.
Project work was still keeping the Regiment busy, particularly the cabling for a missile site at RAAF Butterworth and a further new project at Penang. This latter was the associated cabling system on Western Hill for the new radar site which was to be complementary to the Main Radar Site at Bukit Gombak.
Proposal for Radio Relay troop
Early in 1966 a proposal was put forward for the formation of a field radio-relay troop within the Regiment to give more flexibility and speed in the activation of airfields. The troop was small, one WO II, a Foreman of Signals and 13 tradesmen, the bulk of whom were linemen. This was later increased by a further 20 LEPs; C 41 Radio-relay equipments were “obtained” from CSO’s resources and training started to convert the LEP linemen to radio-relay operators. There is no real record of the activities of this troop other than its participation in several exercises in Malaya over the subsequent two or three years in support of HQ 224 Group. On Exercise ALGUM and HASTINGS in April 1967 the troop provided circuits from Gong Kedah airfield to Kota Bahru Civil Airport for air traffic control. In June 1967, 28 Commonwealth Brigade were deployed in a counter-insurgency role in the area of Seremban on Exercise GEDGLEY. In order to free the Brigade Signal Squadron for its main task of forward communications a Joint Signal Squadron was formed from 17 and 19 Signal Regiments, 28 Brigade Signal Squadron, 249 Signal Squadron and 6 TSU RAF to provide the base and rear communications. The Regiment’s detachments were responsible for all rear and local communications in the Forward Operational Base (FOB), the Brigade Maintenance Area, the airhead at Paroi Camp and the airfield at Terendak; some of these tasks were somewhat outside the conventional Air Formation role. The Radio-Relay Troop set up links from Paroi to Terendak and to Tengah airfield on Singapore. TM Troop set up and manned the System Control in the FOB and Operations Troop installed two 40/160 exchanges, remote keying lines and Hadley teletalks in the base area. In all some 15£ miles of 10 pr cable was used in this rather crowded location. Later in the year during Exercise FIRST TIME the Radio-Relay Troop provided two auto and one direct exchange lines from Singapore to HMS FEARLESS. A relay station was established at Pantai West and communication maintained with HMS FEARLESS as she sailed from Singapore to the Tioman Islands off Mersing and return. It is believed that this is the first occasion that the C 41 radio-relay equipment has been used in this role.
The Morgan Block
Mention has been made earlier on of the living accommodation for the Malay soldiers, which consisted of three wooden blocks, each containing one long room upstairs, holding twenty soldiers and two NCOs in separate bunks. The blocks were, at that time, probably the worst Service accommodation in Singapore, and the Regiment was concerned in providing substantially better living quarters. After very prolonged negotiations a plan for a new barrack block was approved and work started in the summer of 1967. The site chosen was in Camp Askar2 Bujang on ground between the existing blocks and RHQ. The three storey building was to accommodate a total of 73 soldiers with modern showers, toilets, cleaning and drying rooms. In August the work was completed and the Station Commander RAF Changi, was invited to open the building. The ceremony consisted of an inspection of a guard of honour drawn from the Locally Enlisted Soldiers dressed in full ceremonial No. 3 dress, prayers by the Imam and addresses by the Commanding Officer and the Station Commander, after which the Station Commander unveiled a Commemorative Plaque. In seeking a name for the new building, it was decided to call it the Morgan Block, after Colonel (later Brigadier) F.S. Morgan, CBE, ERD, DL, JP, who spent much of his service with Air Formation Signals in this area, Europe and the United Kingdom. Colonel Morgan passed through Singapore in June while work was in progress and was able to obtain firsthand details of the project. He suggested that a plaque bearing the Morgan family crest might appropriately be displayed in the block, particularly as the lion is similar to that of Singapore, the Lion City. A plaque was therefore made and was fixed to the wall alongside the Commemorative Plaque.
The 26th September 1967 saw another change in Commanding Officers when Lieutenant Colonel D.H. Thursby-Pelham took over from Lieutenant Colonel R.H. Maxfield, who returned to UK to take up an appointment at the Royal Military College of Science.
Unlike any other Signal Regiment, an Air Formation Unit does not have its own Officers or WOs and Sgts Messes but the Officers and Senior Ranks are members of the parent RAF Station Messes. In RAF Changi the Temple Hill Officers Mess had a membership of some 400 Officers and the Station Sergeants Mess some 1000 Senior Ranks. Whilst both Messes were very amenable to the Regiment in allowing various functions to be held in the public rooms, it was felt that the Regiment would like some place of its own as a social centre and where it could hold unit parties and functions. Since the new Morgan Block had been opened the old Japanese barrack blocks in Camp Askar2 Bujang were now empty. The top floor of one of these was taken over by the Regiment on 27th October 1967 and with self-help was converted into what was to be called the Senior Ranks Club or SENRAN Club. Although this was mainly a unit Sgts Mess, run by a Committee under the direction of the RSM as President, all Officers of the Regiment were made Honorary members, and on some occasions all ranks were invited to use the facilities. In subsequent years this Club has gone from strength to strength and has been the focal point for unit social activities.
The major exercise participation in 1968 was a very big SEATO Communications and Command Exercise RAMASOON held in Thailand. The main task of the Regiment was to provide a Systems Control and the land-line activation of Leong Nok Tha airfield in north east Thailand for the RAF elements deployed in support of 28 Commonwealth Brigade. This involved the fly-in of all equipment used and on the ground the installation of a 200-line MDF, a 40-line Access Jack Unit, a 40/160 Exchange with its associated terminal instruments and the usual large numbers of tele-talks and remote keying lines required for an operational RAF station. This involved the laying of some 21.5 miles of 10-pair cable. This was the first time that Leong Nok Tha airfield had been fully activated for its SEATO role and throughout the month-long exercise the airfield was very active with all types of aircraft from Hercules downwards.
Operations Troop were given a change of environment in June 1968 when they were sent on detachment to RAF Akrotiri, Cyprus to assist 261 Signal Squadron on airfield SWS projects. The work included the overhaul of many of the permanent line routes using plastic cables.
In July 1969 the first plans were made for the eventual withdrawal from Singapore planned for the end of 1971. The first reductions in the Regimental establishment were to be effected in October. In September Operations Troop was formally disbanded and on 1st October the Regimental strength was reduced by 2 Officers, 119 soldiers and 15 vehicles and trailers. The demise of 19th Signal Regiment (Air Support) had begun.
Since the Changi end of Singapore Island is particularly low-lying, there is always a danger of flooding when there is heavy rainfall. In December 1969 the monsoon was unusually heavy, and rain fell from 8th December almost non-stop for three weeks producing a rainfall of some 25 inches. Cable chambers and ducts were flooded and circuits throughout Changi and the neighbouring trunk routes to other parts of the island went out. Changi Airfield Troop went on to 24-hour working rerouting circuits on to sound cables and then starting the tedious task of finding the faults on the unserviceable cables, drying out, piecing-in new lengths and rehabilitating the routes. It was hard and uncomfortable work but by early January 1970 the worst of the work had been completed.