Leaders of lost expedition criticised

Mary Braid
Wednesday 21 September 1994 00:02
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THE TWO officers who led an army expedition which was lost for a month in the Borneo jungle have been severely criticised for 'flawed' judgement and leadership by an army Board of Inquiry.

But no disciplinary action will be taken against expedition leader Lieutenant-Colonel Robert Neill, 46, or his second-in-command Major Ron Foster, 54, following the exercise in which five of the team of 10 were trapped for 16 days on the sheer, rock face of Low's Gully, a then unconquered descent from Mount Kinabalu, Malaysia's highest mountain.

As hundreds of Malaysian soldiers scoured the jungle looking for the team, Lt-Col Neill, Major Foster and three Hong Kong Chinese soldiers almost starved to death in the gully. At first they survived on a biscuit a day. When they were finally spotted on a mist- shrouded ledge by a Malaysian helicopter pilot on March 25 they had not eaten for six days. Lt-Col Neill had lost two stone.

After the embarrassing and expensive rescue operation, Lt-Col Neill accused five young British soldiers, fitter and more experienced than the Hong Kong servicemen, of breaking away without his authorisation.

It was claimed that the Hong Kong team members had learned to abseil only days before the expedition started. Yesterday's report said the decision to take them into the gully was 'over-ambitious'.

The breakaway party emerged from the jungle, after successfully completing the world's first descent of the gully, 13 days before the other half of the team was rescued. Yesterday's report exonerated Corporal Hugh Brittan, 24, and Lance Corporal Richard Mayfield, 25, who led the splinter group. The two men, and Lance Corporal Cheung Yiu Keuong, one of the Hong Kong soldiers, are to receive commendations for their action.

Presenting the report, Major General Patrick Cordingley said there had been a misunderstanding during a conversation between L/Cpl Mayfield and Lt-Col Neill after the expedition leader became ill with altitide sickness. L/Cpl Mayfield believed he had been given permission to go ahead.

Yesterday, Lt-Col Neill said he accepted 'full responsibility for anything that went wrong' and that the board was 'entirely fair'. He said he was pleased about the commendations. 'They are all very brave young men,' he added, before thanking rescuers who had 'risked their lives in appalling conditions'.

Lt-Col Neill had denied losing control of the expedition team. But yesterday an army source said: 'They basically failed to control the situation on the ground.'

The report concluded that some decisions taken by Major Foster, a Territorial Army officer who took command when Lt-Col Neill became sick, contributed to the developing problems.

The decision to take no means of communication was identified as a serious flaw. Radios were ruled out because they would not operate in the deep gully and flares and smoke could not be carried on civilian aircraft. But Lt-Col Neill, a Royal Logistic Corps officer, was unaware that locator beacons were available for emergency use and did not apply for them.

The full report, which was not released, said the expedition leaders had not organised sufficient preparatory training, particularly for abseiling into the deep gully. It recommended a review of the qualifications required for abseiling supervisors.

A Ministry of Defence spokesman said yesterday that pounds 75,000 had been spent sending rescue teams out to Borneo. He said he did not know how much Malaysia had spent on the rescue but it would not be billing the British Government.

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