The 'Old Grey Ghost' returns to the Borneo Coast

The latest stage of the Royal Navy’s mission of goodwill to South East Asia saw HMS Albion renew the bonds of friendship with one of United Kingdom’s closest defence partners, while her embarked Royal Marines ventured deep into the jungles of Borneo.

The Old Grey Ghost returns to the Borneo CoastHMS Albion’s four day visit to Brunei was the first by a Royal Navy warship since 2011 and follows recent visits to Singapore and Jakarta, designed strengthen the UK’s economic and defence interests in a region that is growing in strategic significance.

Officially known as Brunei Darussalam – which means ‘abode of peace’ – the tiny nation is located in the northern coast of Borneo, an island which it shares with Malaysia and Indonesia.

It’s a part of the world full of historical resonance for the Fleet Flagship. With much of South East Asia gripped by political turbulence in the 1960s, the Royal Marines fought an intense counter-insurgency campaign ashore and the previous HMS Albion, a commando carrier, became a familiar presence in the region and was dubbed 'The Old Grey Ghost of the Borneo Coast.'

Although Brunei achieved full independence in 1984, the relationship between the two countries remains close. The oil-rich Sultanate enjoys some of the most pristine areas of jungle in the region, and is home to a permanent British training facility. 

Here in Brunei, and all around the world, the United Kingdom is extremely fortunate to be able to draw on friendships between people who share the same formative experiences, who understand one another and who can bring our countries closer together

Captain Tim Neild RN, HMS Albion’s commanding officer

“What the jungle offers is Commando training at its most raw, combining basic infantry skills with the need to survive in a place where everything is designed to defeat you, from toxic tree sap to venomous snakes and, above all, the heat and humidity,” explains Lt Col James Fuller, HMS Albion’s Amphibious Operations Officer.

“Technology will only help you to a point. Ultimately success in the jungle is about instinct and skill; and if we can learn how to fight here, then we can fight just about anywhere.”

For many of HMS Albion’s Royal Marines, Brunei represented their first experience of jungle training. The week-long Exercise Hutan Commando began by getting back to basics of survival - water, food and shelter – before moving on to the elements required for fighting at close quarters, including riverine operations.

Away from the jungle, HMS Albion’s chefs and stewards had the opportunity to flex their renowned hospitality skills in support of a succession of visits from senior government officials and military representatives.

The enduring relationship between the UK and Brunei was in evidence at a reception hosted by HMS Albion for more than 40 serving and retired officers from the Royal Brunei Navy who trained at Britannia Royal Naval College between 1972 and today.

Among those present was Captain Haji Yusuf bin Masron, Chief of Staff to Brunei’s Joint Force Headquarters, who was at Dartmouth in 1991 in the same class as HMS Albion’s commanding officer, Captain Tim Neild.

“It’s 27 years since we walked through the gates of Britannia Royal Naval College together. We both played in the college rock band at the Summer Ball, and that was the last we saw of each other”, recalled Captain Neild.

“The fact that after all this time we can pick up where we left off is wonderful. It just goes to highlight the value of Royal Navy’s international training programmes. Here in Brunei, and all around the world, the United Kingdom is extremely fortunate to be able to draw on friendships between people who share the same formative experiences, who understand one another and who can bring our countries closer together.”

As well as renewing old friendships, HMS Albion’s Ship’s Company set about forging new ones too, as they welcomed 80 year 6 pupils from the International School Brunei, including the son of Brunei’s Crown Prince, to tour the ship.

S/Lt Simon Elmore said, “It was a pleasure to have them onboard – they absolutely loved getting hands on with the fire-fighting gear, night vision goggles and other interactive displays around the ship.”

The Old Grey Ghost returns to the Borneo CoastMeanwhile, a group of officers and ratings from HMS Albion were invited to visit the Royal Brunei Navy’s offshore patrol vessel KDB Darussalam.

S/Lt Henry Prior said, “The scope of the Brunei Navy and its concept of operations is very different to a globally deployed Navy like our own, but it was interesting to understand how Brunei’s geographical outlook shapes their security.

"They have a great deal of experience of operating among the islands of South East Asia which the Royal Navy can learn from, particularly if we start to visit this region more regularly in the future.”

HMS Albion’s departure from Brunei presented the opportunity to turn warm words about partnership into practice, as she joined KDB Darussalam for exercises, together with a Black Hawk from the Royal Brunei Air Force – the fourth type of helicopter to land on the assault ship since it left Plymouth three months ago.

However, despite the busy programme of defence engagements, there was time for members of the Ship’s Company to step ashore. Many chose to tread beyond the usual shopping malls and hotels and instead explore the water village of Kampong Ayer – described by explorer Magellan as the ‘Venice of the East’ – while others headed to the mangroves in search of Proboscis monkeys and saltwater crocodiles.

LAET Joseph Fisher said, “Brunei wasn’t at all like I expected, and there were surprises at every turn, particularly the mangrove swamps and the water village. Brunei isn’t really on the tourist trail, so it’s only because of the Navy that I’d get to see these kinds of places.”