British Empire Article

Courtesy of OSPA

by L J Holliday
The following report was published in the North Borneo News, about 1960:

A recent fire here could have been serious but for the leadership of Mr Jack Holliday of the Department of Civil Aviation in fighting the fire.

The fire occurred near Tawau airstrip and was a raging inferno by the time the fire brigade arrived. This was at just past 2 pm. The battle lasted three hours and it was not until 5 pm that the fire was really under control.

Apart from the police members of the fire Brigade, there was hefty Gregory Ang of the PWD, and the Boy Scouts of the First and Second Tawau groups were also seen lending a hand in putting out the fire. They all did a fine job, and were tired but happy when they left the scene of the fire after they had managed to put it out without serious damage to anything or anybody.

The Story behind the Story:
An Airfield Inspection
Tawau Police
Three or four times a year all the airfields or airstrips throughout the Borneo Territories were inspected by the DCA (Department of Civil Aviation) Operations Officers. This was to ensure that airstrip markers were in good repair, that documentation and instructions from Head Office had been updated in manuals and that all Verey cartridges held in the tower were in a good state and ready for use. Verey cartridges sweated with age and dampness and the compressed cardboard sleeve swelled and would not go into the pistol barrel. When they reached this stage they should have been given to the OCPD (Officer Commanding Police District) or, in his absence, buried in a reasonably deep hole.

The Story behind the Story:
An Airfield Inspection
Aerial View of Tawau
So it was at the end of a specific tour I landed in Tawau, a most delightful spot on the north-east of North Borneo.

On this occasion I had found a couple of suspect cartridges, one of which could not be used due to swelling while the second was marginal. I told the local controller it probably would not fit in the barrel. Well, it did! I further told him that if I put the 'fire/ safe' catch on 'fire' and pulled the trigger it would not go off.

The Borneo Airways aircraft had departed twenty minutes before and was safely away from our control, so I pulled the trigger, facing the pistol over the parking area. The pistol fired and the red flare from the cartridge curved a lazy arc high in the air and hit the ground before bouncing into the lalang (long grass). There had been no rain for two or three weeks and fire sprang up. Immediately I turned and said, "OK, let's make a fire fighting exercise out of this". The fire-pump was still connected to the Landrover so it was swung into action, but by the time it reached the scene the fire was burning on a twenty yard front and spreading rapidly in all directions!

The Story behind the Story:
An Airfield Inspection
Tawau Airfield Today
Obviously, the pump could neither contain nor extinguish the fire. I rang the town fire brigade, the police and Public Works Department. Eventually, the above organisations and the Boy Scouts (running through the scrub with lengths of suction hose over their shoulders), managed to control and extinguish the fire, mainly due to the exceptional supply of water from two large open wartime bomb craters. The resultant water enabled us to hose down the scrub and jungle ahead of the fire and ensured no further problem to the Tawau townsite.

In the evening as I enjoyed a quiet ale or two. Lew, the OCPD, said to me, "Jock, the next time you are coming on an inspection, could you send me a signal," and on being asked why he replied, "well. I'll make bloody sure I am off station!"

No pleasing some people, I suppose!

Map of Perim Island in 1955
Location of Perim Island
Map of Perim Island
Colony Profile
North Borneo Colony Profile
Originally Published
OSPA Journal 98: October 2009


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