Sunday, 10 June 2012

The Kedah Road Project Malaya

                                                     The Kedah Road Project

This road construction project was carried out under Emergency conditions in the Malayan jungles, by field units. For over two years they were employed on a real engineering task: Officers designed and built permanent RC bridges : Sappers supervised gangs of labourers : Workshops once were really busy with men “working at their  trade”: and everyone from Squadron Commander to Sapper, had the satisfaction of seeing the results of his work in permanent form

A large part of the workforce were inexperienced in this type of work and fell to those who had been involved in “real tasks” previously to teach and demonstrate the knowhow in getting the job done. This challenge was taken up enthusiastically by all and sundry and very quickly we developed   a strong confident team able to deal with most problems (opportunities)

Kedah is the most northern state in Malaya, bordering with what is now Thailand. It’s capital Alor Star, is circa 290 miles from Kuala Lumpur, the Federal capital of Malaya, and 540 miles, or a day and a night journey, from Singapore.

Early in 1957 it became apparent that it would be sometime before sufficient troops would be available to deal with the Communist Terrorist threat in Kedah, it was therefore suggested that an extensive road building programme, coupled with administrative development, with the aim of bringing Government to some isolated villages in the  centre and  east of the state. It was considered that this would do much to curtail terrorist activities and help it their eventual destruction.

In April 1957 the Chief Engineer arranged for the road to be reconnoitred by Capt. J F Newton RAE, of 11 Independent Field Squadron RE and Capt. G N Ritchie of 50 Ghurkha Engineer Field Regiment.

The  recce. was carried out in haste along existing  jungle tracks and made no attempt to fix a detailed  alignment, but it did confirm that construction was practicable.

It was estimated that the cost to Government for the 64 miles of laterite surfaced road, passing thro’ primary and secondary jungle, at times very hilly, rubber estates and  a few padi fields, and crossing one large river, the Sungei  Muda at Nami, would be in the order of £300,000 and wdould take circa two and a half years with one field Squadron, one Plant troop, and additional pool plant. By all accounts this estimate proved to be surprisingly accurate albeit the decision was made to employ two squadrons on the task. A
 A plan was made by the Chief Engineer to build 52 miles of road, the reduction in length was due to road realignment, and work began on the 1 August 1957.

410 Independent Plant Troop RE - August 1957 – September 1959

Officers  Commanding, Capt. A Bellizzi Re, Capt. J N P Vann RE, Major E F S Pike RE.

The road was to be built to the following specification as determined by the original plan.

Formation  width, 34 feet.

Cleared  width, 100 feet in primary jungle down to 66 feet in less dense areas.

Minimum width of surfaced area, 14feet, ( 6ins. of laterite)

Ruling gradient camber, each  1 in 30

Bridges – Class 24 permanent construction, with a 14 feet carriageway

The line of sight around a bend was defined in technical terms “it was acceptable as long as a Scammell and low loader could negotiate the curve. This gave everyone plenty of leeway.

Stretches of steep side hill cut and embankments passing through swampy areas had the formation width reduced to 22 feet and relatively steep gradients up to 1: 12 were accepted in difficult country.

The jungle thro’ which the road was built was, in places, very dense and it was difficult to determine the best alignment until some undergrowth had been cleared. In order to do this a dozer track was pushed thro’ until it was possible to see the best way to go. This work was usually done by a D8 operated by Sapper Ollie Olliyat, and I think as, reinforcement on occasion by Sapper Mac “Jock” Mcready on a Vickers VR 180.

Once enough area was cleared and the alignment confirmed the centre line would be established and clearance would begin. As the forward clearance progressed utilizing dozers and sometimes a 19 RB might be called up to help form sidehill cuts, the scrapers would then follow up constructing the formation. The scrapers were towed mostly by Fowler Challengers. They were Heath Robinson machines but good operators like Jim Pearce could get a good days production out of them. They were powered by a Leyland AU 600 (Automotive Unit), the output thro’ a single dryplate clutch. Skillfull operators could easily construct the camber leaving the final shaping , laterite surfacing, and bank battering to the grader section. The rate of progress was circa 2 / 3 miles per month depending on the alignment and the weather conditions.

 The graders employed were Aveling Austin 99H and, one I think, Blaw Knox (BK 12). I know 410 produced some of the best grader operator the construction industry has seen.

Federation Engineers looked after miscellaneous FE tasks including, revetments, catchwater drains and run-offs for surface water. Culverts figured significantly thro’ out the road, both R C and Armco, an idea of their cost ranged from a 2 feet RC @ £109 to a 7 feet Armco @ £830 per 50 feet run.

They also ran fleet of Leyland Comet and Commer tippers which ran the laterite from pit to surfacing section.

Good rate of equipment serviceability depends upon a first class unit inspection and servicing system. This was lacking in the first instance due to the inexperience of the fitters, mostly straight out of training, and also because the allocated plant was not “up to the job” but in a short length of time on the job training and a lot of effort an acceptable system was established and availability improved on both static and mobile plant. What was impressive was the way operators and fitters alike embraced what needed to be done and got on with it, often working 7 days a week when the weather was right. This team spirit was, I believe, one of the things that made 410 the unique unit it was.

It should be pointed out the effort put in by WOII Jacob “Jake” Jacobson, RAOC , a South African, he was the Tech. Stores department, who dealt with never ending requests for spare parts and  maintained the FAMTO stores. He spent a considerable time, successfully too, upgrading equipment spares scalings which improved the parts inventory but in the end it all became a bit blurred and everything was “Red Star”. His effort certainly made a considerable contribution towards improving plant availability.   

Nami  Bridge. This bridge was built by 1 Engineer Squadron, Federation   Engineers, at times assisted by 410 Independent Plant Troop RE and men from 2 Engineer Squadron, Federation Engineers between the 1 May and 16 December 1958 over the Sungei  Muda. The site on the river had a water gap of 210 feet and a flood plain of 170 feet with steep banks on both sides rising some 25-30 feet above normal water level. The river was known to rise up to 25 feet if sudden heavy rains occurred up steam during the monsoon season.  

It was 451 feet long with a 14 feet carriageway and two 1 foot kerbs. Several bridge designs were considered but it was decided by the Chief Engineer that it would be a submersible bridge but high enough to so that it would only be under water a few days in the most abnormal flood conditions. The final design was for 12 piers,6 x 40 ft over the river and 7 x 30ft over the flood plain. The piers were excavated to bedrock, with a mass concrete base tied into the rock on the on the upstream side. From this base the capsill was supported on two R C (reinforced concrete) 14ft columns the columns were joined together by a web wall.

Next came the 16 deck beams per bay lifted into place by a 19 RB and when in place were tied down to the capsills using mild steel threaded bar.

The abutments were on silty soil consisted of a ground beam supported on R C.mat itself  supported on 3 piles springing from a bedrock base.

During the course of construction the military labour varied, averaging out at circa 35 no’s which matched the number of civilian operatives (give or take a few).Aggregate for the project was sourced and crushed on site.

Here it is, the cost : -   Materials                                £ 14,650

                                           Labour                       £4500                    (we must have paid them too much)

                                        Total                        £ 19150

This cost was exclusive of the military contribution.                       

The overall cost of the project, road “an all” to the government was:-

                                                Road and Culverts           £150,050 or £2915 per mile

                                                Bridges                                 £57140     or £34 per ft.

                                                Camps                                  £34,365 ( we were expensive sods!)

                                                Sundries, Training materials,

                                                Project stores                    £990

                                                Total                                      £242,545

This compares favourably with allotted share of £265,000 for the military out of the approved £300,000 budget for the whole project. 

An interesting aspect of the project from our senior officers point of view was the decision to consult with the PWD (Public Works Department) informally on problems that arose, and if practical, accept their advice and their approval of road formation, bridge works and drainage etc. before handover.

We were not bound by this policy, but it was adopted deliberatively to improve some strained relations that had developed during the emergency and it paid dividends apart from the useful advice received re., sourcing materials, but also as a result of the confidence PWD gained in our ability to build permanent bridges and roads, the Federation Engineers were given a task of constructing a 1260ft permanent RC bridge on the East Coast of Malaya and I hope have gone on from strength to strength.

The roads and bridges were officially opened by His Highness the Sultan of Kedah on the 7, September, 1959 in the presence of many distinguished guests including the Minister of Defence and other minister of the Federation.

 In the course of the ceremony the Sultan named Nami bridge “Sultan Abdul Halim Bridge after himself and presented an inscribed Kris to British Engineer Units and a silver salver to the Federation Engineers.

It must have been a very grand occasion, Sultan Abdul Halim Bridge ‘eh, it will always be, to me, Nami Bridge on the Kedah Road.

When we look back on the work we did we and more important the way in which we did it, we should be immensely proud of ourselves, the Kedah Road , the sports field at Minden Barracks more than  likely the sports field at Burma Camp in Johore Bahru the air field at Asahan are all still operational.

The air field built by the Royal Engineers in Borneo is now I understand the main international airport serving Sabah. We did have some good officers and SNCO’s, albeit, at times they seemed to become a little emotional, even sometimes very emotional, they were very good at taking rag off your sleeve

What it was about 410 I don’t  know, the esprit de corps, the camaraderie, but it was the happiest time I experienced during my 22 years service.

I hope you find this interesting and it may jog your memories

This brief account of the Kedah Road Project was taken from an entry in The Royal Engineers Journal, written by Lt. Col. R A Blakeway R E and additional comment from experience gained by myself, Sapper Joe Loach (sometimes L/Cpl) on the project.  

Lt Col. Blakeway R E became the first Chief Engineer of The Federation Engineers, Malaya and previously was the Commanding Officer of 51 Field Engineer Regiment RE. 

Joe Loach











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