The five British and Hong Kong soldiers were rescued after being trapped in the jungle for four weeks. They were reunited with their families yesterday in Hong Kong, with Colonel Neill admitting he failed but asserting he knew what he was doing. Women wept as they met the men at Hong Kong's British Military Hospital.
'I am a humbled man,' admitted Colonel Neill, 46. The Colonel and four others were rescued from a ravine where they were trapped for 29 days and nearly starved to death after their failed attempt to climb down the 7,000ft Low's Gully on Mount Kinabalu.
The British and Malayasian armies mounted a massive, and costly, rescue operation to find the soldiers. A Malayasian helicopter pilot last Friday spotted an SOS that Colonel Neill's men had written on a large boulder in a river. 'We'd made the SOS sign three weeks ago, and we could see the Malaysian helicopters flying over the gully - but they didn't see us. I can't repeat the curses we said, but we never gave up hope,' said Major Foster, 54. 'I never thought I wouldn't get out.' The party was trapped in a chimney- like ravine between two waterfalls. They could not move forward. Nor could they crawl up the gully. 'I spent a long time in my sleeping bag thinking about home,' Major Foster said.
The expedition has raised questions in parliament about the usefulness of the adventure training exercises. The Ministry of Defence will conduct an inquiry into why the climb ended in near-disaster. A hefty bill is expected from the Malaysian government. 'It was a serious, arduous undertaking. In peace, this is how we officers and soldiers train for war,' Colonel Neill said. The adventure training exercises, he insisted, were 'one of the few opportunities the army has of seeing how young soldiers in particular react under pressure - whether it be physical or mental'.
The officer praised Corporal Hugh Brittan, 24, for saving all their lives. Before beginning the hazardous descent Colonel Neill split his 10-man party into two, with Cpl Brittan leading one. It was Cpl Brittan's group of more seasoned mountaineers who reached the jungle floor and alerted the Malaysian army that their colleagues were stranded in the forbidding gully.
James Fenton on Borneo, page 14
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