The British were in Singapore, the rebellion 800 miles distant across the sea. Lieutenant Colonel Robin Bridges, Commanding Officer of 42 Commando Royal Marines, put his men on four-hour notice to move, and by 5pm on the day he heard of the insurgency in Brunei on the island of Borneo, he had his one available rifle company commander briefed and ready to lead the advance guard.
It was 9 December 1962, and Bridges had been CO since April the previous year, extracting the best out of his men despite Britain’s dwindling resources and a changed role for the Marines as helicopter-carrier-borne special forces. East of Suez they had two old ships and less-than perfect Westland Whirlwind helicopters.
This time their own carrier, HMS Bulwark, known as “the rusty B”, was far away, and her partner vessel, HMS Albion, “the old grey ghost”, was assigned elsewhere. So Bridges had his men flown to the island of Labuan in Brunei Bay to be ferried ashore, and went forward himself to Brunei airport.
In the town the rebel TKNU, or North Kalimantan National Army, had been fought off, but 12 miles farther inland, across near-impenetrable swamp at Limbang, Sarawak, the insurgents were holding the British Resident, Richard Morris, and his wife, Dorothy, hostage, and threatening to hang them. Bridges over-flew on reconnaissance: the rebels had gone to ground in the brick-built police station, and in the mangrove jungle behind Limbang’s waterfront edge.
Back in Brunei, 42 Commando’s “L” company of 85 men commandeered two flat-bottomed Z-lighter cargo vessels, and set off at midnight on 11 December along the narrow-channelled river through the swamp. On the second craft were mounted two Vickers medium machine guns. At dawn, as they reached Limbang, the rebels fired on them. Men from the first lighter sprang ashore and two fell dead; in the second, the Company Sergeant Major asked the Royal Navy lieutenant at the wheel to “pull out of line a bit Sir, so we can get a better arc of fire”. “Sarn’t Major”, the lieutenant replied, “Nelson would have loved you.”
The Resident was freed, for three more Marines killed, and the rebellion put down. Bridges was Mentioned in Despatches and decorated by Brunei’s ruling Sultan with the Star Megara Medal.
By his leadership Bridges nurtured a host of talents. The young captain of L Company whom he had sent ahead was Jeremy Moore, who as a Major-General 20 years later would be Commander, Land Forces in the Falklands. The naval officer who found the lighters and sent crew was the future Admiral Sir Jeremy Black – captain in that conflict of HMS Invincible. Bridges’ successor as 42 Cdo’s CO in 1963 was the future General Sir Ian Gourlay, Royal Marines Commandant-General, and a 2nd Lieutenant under Bridges’ command on Borneo was the future leader of the Liberal Democrats, Paddy Ashdown.
In the Second World War Bridges had been Mentioned in Despatches for “good services” with Monty’s 21st Army Group, including crossing the Rhine in a canoe and entering U-boat pens at Hamburg. He served in the early 1950s with the flotilla of the Rhine Squadron, and as second in command, 40 Commando, Royal Marines, he served in North Africa and Cyprus.
He was a much-loved commander, and tales about him are many. Once, when some Military Police (“Red Caps”) demanded the Marines be punished in their presence for a purported misdemeanour, he ordered the Marines out on a nine-mile run – telling the MP that to witness the punishment as requested, they had to come along too.
Another time after he had ordered Marines to get rid of a snake that habitually lurked where food was prepared, they tried and failed to put it in a box. When he arrived, the now-agitated snake, a large python, broke free and wrapped itself around him, and, it was remembered, “the lads cheered” at the spectacle of their CO wrestling with the monster.
A monkey that Bridges adopted for a “Fathers and Sons” swimming race to sit on his shoulders when he joined parents carrying children in the pool, once scratched him, and so he charged it, his men recalled, with “striking a superior officer”.
Bridges, whose father kept a small shop, was educated at Kelly College, Tavistock, Devon. He excelled as a rugby hooker, and on war’s outbreak was posted to HMS Iron Duke in Scapa Flow. When she was bombed, in October 1939, he swam to safety.
Bridges and 42 Cdo also successfully deterred a threatened invasion of newly independent Kuwait by the Iraqi forces of Abd al-Karim Qasim in summer 1961, getting there by thundering up the Persian Gulf on HMS Bulwark as fast as she would go. When the 500 Marines reached the ridge above Kuwait City, the two Iraqi Army divisions said to be on their way failed to turn up.
After his retirement Bridges founded a restaurant at Marazion, Cornwall called Robin’s Nest. The business survived the disaster of 1967 when a huge oil spill from the tanker vessel Torrey Canyon coated Marazion beach a foot deep in sludge, but Bridges sought further employment, and became Under-Treasurer of Lincoln’s Inn, London, running its day-to- day affairs.
He was married five times, twice divorced, and three times widowed. In later years he took delight in living in a thatched cottage in Teffont Magna, Wiltshire, where he served as village hall chairman.
Lt Col Ernest Robert (“Robin”) Bridges, Royal Marines officer: born Cornwall 6 December 1918; OBE 1962; married firstly (two daughters deceased), 1964 Margaret Eldin-Taylor (died 1981; one daughter, one stepdaughter, one stepson), married thirdly, fourthly Margaret Becher (died 2000), fifthly Margaret Ritson (died 2013; three stepsons); died Teffont Magna, Wiltshire 18 June 2015.Reuse content