The lost wars: Britain's Malayan campaigns - Home News - UK - The Independent

The lost wars: Britain's Malayan campaigns

A dispute over the right to wear medals at the Cenotaph has revived interest in two conflicts that have been swept under the carpet of history. Andy McSmith reports

It is odd how little the British know about certain wars that were fought by our soldiers, in our name, not so many years ago. Other nations celebrate their military victories, and gloss over defeats, but not the British. Two of our most decisive victories of the past half-century have been hidden away in the undergrowth of Asian jungles.

Ask someone to list countries in the world where a Western army fought a Communist army at any time during the Cold War, and the first answer will almost certainly be Vietnam; after that, Korea, and then perhaps someone with a decent knowledge of post war history might say Greece. Very few would think of Malaya. Fewer still would be able to put a name to the island in Asia where the bodies of hundreds of British soldiers lie lost in the jungle, killed in a conflict about which the British public was told almost nothing.

Perhaps we should blame the cinema. While Hollywood has kept memories of the Vietnam and Korean wars alive with blockbusters like Apocalypse Now, The Deer Hunter, The Manchurian Candidate and M*A*S*H*, the best that British cinema could offer in memory of hundreds of British soldiers who died in the Malayan jungle was the insipid comedy, Privates on Parade.

This war, so rarely in the news since it came to a bloody, muffled end all those years ago, has returned to the headlines this week thanks to an increasingly intractable stand off between Army veterans and the Ministry of Defence, which will be on display at Sunday's Remembrance Day parade.

It has to do with the medals the old fighters will pin to their uniforms. Two years ago, the King of Malaysia, Sultan Mizan Zainal Abidin, informed the MoD that he wanted to honour British servicemen who fought for his country by awarding them a new medal, the Pingat Jasa Malaysia.

The MoD, which is bound by rather a lot of rules when it comes to medals, replied that this was very kind, and of course the Malaysian government was free to award medals to whomever it chose, and as a special concession the Queen would graciously permit the ex-servicemen to receive these medals. But, it added, it could not possibly permit the ex-servicemen permission actually to wear them, because there is a rule that medals are not awarded for service in a conflict that ended more than five years ago, and anyway many of the soldiers involved had already been awarded British medals. It is not considered "British" for a veteran to wear two medals from the same war.

That rule might have been accepted without complaint had it been applied universally. But the aggrieved servicemen pointed out that recently the Russians had said they wanted to honour British sailors who guarded Second World War convoys. That war has been over for more than 55 years, let alone five, yet the MoD accepted the Russian offer with thanks.

In August, a contingent of British veterans were invited to Malaysia to join the Queen in celebrating the 50th anniversary of Malayan independence – and were encouraged to wear those same medals that they are banned from wearing at home. Back on British soil, the MoD is still saying that the Pingat Jasa Malaysia is an absolute no-no.

That is not going to stop a large number of veterans from turning out in them on Sunday, Fred Burnett of the National Malaya and Borneo Veterans' Association insisted yesterday. He said: "I'm sorry, but I and many thousands of others who have been presented with this medal will say to the Ministry of Defence ... well, I won't say the word they'll use, but I will wear my medal on 11 November and so will they.

"The Queen said my guys could wear that medal for three days in Malaysia. Soldiers from Australia, New Zealand and Fiji have been told by their governments that they can wear their medals. Where is the sense in this?

"Should we say rubbish to the Malaysian people? Should we say rubbish to the King of Malaysia? Or should we say that the Malaysians want us to wear these medals and so we are going to wear them?"

The MoD retorted: "It is long-standing policy that non-British awards will not be approved for events or service already covered by a British award. Those who served in Malaysia and merited recognition during this period were awarded the General Service Medal. The compromise of allowing the acceptance of the Pingat Jasa Malaysia Medal, but not the wearing of it, recognises the generous gesture of the King and government of Malaysia. This decision of the HD Committee [Committee on the Grant of Honours Decorations and Medals] is one of procedure rather than a legal ruling."

But behind the official explanation there may be a reluctance even now to draw attention to a war that was kept secret when it was being fought just over four decades ago.

There were in fact two long conflicts in what is now the kingdom of Malaysia. The first, which is perhaps only half forgotten, began in June 1948, when Communist guerrillas who had only recently been fighting alongside the British against the Japanese came out of the jungle to raid a rubber plantation, and left three of its managers dead.

The war was over control of the new Federation of Malaya, formed by the patchwork of states on the Malayan peninsula, all of which were then British colonies. If the guerrillas had won, Malaya would have become a Communist republic, tied to China, but after 12 years of intense fighting they were decisively beaten and their leader, Chin Peng, escaped to China.

Officially, the government of the day never admitted we were at war. They did not dignify the enemy by recognising it as an army, but throughout referred to them as terrorists, or criminals, and insisted that what was in progress was a police operation, with the native Malayan police taking the lead role, backed by British soldiers.

This suited the British owners of Malaya's lucrative rubber plantations and tin mines, who were insured for losses through theft, but not for losses incurred in wartime. But for "police work", it was heavier than the average Scotland Yard dawn raid. The British dropped 545,000 tons of bombs in 4,500 air strikes in the first five years. The death toll ran to 519 British personnel, including the High Commissioner, Henry Gurney, more than 1,300 Malayan police, and more than 3,000 civilians.

In one incident, British soldiers moved into a village called Batang Kali in December 1948, slaughtered 24 Chinese inhabitants, and set the village on fire. Scotland Yard opened an inquiry into the killings, but in 1970, the Conservative government ordered that the inquiry should be halted. The truth may never now be established.

The British also interned 34,000 people, sprayed hundreds of acres with defoliant, and employed the services of Dyak head-hunters from Borneo to bring in the heads of guerrillas, though a warning was passed down from on high that they were to avoid posing for photographs with their trophies.

One soldier, named Harry Roberts, become so accustomed to killing people out in Malaya that he continued the practice after demobilisation. After shooting dead two unarmed policemen in Shepherd's Bush in 1966, while a third was killed by a criminal associate, he used skills learnt in the jungle to hide for several months. He is still in prison.

The Malaysian conflict was also the last fought by conscript British soldiers, because the war and national service both ended in the same year, 1960. One of the conscripts, a teenager named Leslie Thomas, used his experiences there to write the comic novel, The Virgin Soldiers.

In the end, the guerrillas were defeated largely by their isolation. Unlike their South Vietnamese counterparts, they did not have a supportive neighbouring state that they could use as a base. Their leadership was Chinese, and they never managed to win significant support from other ethnic groups, who were not enthused by the prospect of swapping British rule for Chinese.

But no sooner was the Malayan peninsula clear of guerrillas, than a second conflict blew up, this one a more conventional territorial clash between newly independent states. At that time, the huge, rich island of Borneo was divided into four statelets. One was the oil-rich kingdom of Brunei, one became a province of the new state of Indonesia, and as the other two – Sarawak and Sabah – approached independence, the UK proposed that they join the Malayan Federation in what was to be renamed Malaysia.

Indonesia's charismatic, anti-Western President Sukarno objected, and there began a secret war in the jungles of Borneo. The King of Malaysia's new medal is designated for any foreign servicemen who supported his country in the years 1957 to 1966 – which principally means veterans of the Borneo conflict, the one fought in almost total secrecy. There are almost no books, and no films, to commemorate it. Even press reports published this week about the argument between the veterans and the MoD assumed that it is about the earlier Malayan war.

Fred Burnett fought in both. He was in Malaya in 1952 as a conscript, and in Borneo in 1965 as a professional soldier, with the gunners, and he is adamant that the second, secret war was if anything more deadly than the first. As he talked about it yesterday, there was an interlude as he burst into tears.

"People come on to me and say: 'I fought in Malaya in the Fifties, and we did all the fighting," he said. "I tell you, they were both wars fought in the jungle. In Malaya, we lost 519 men, in Borneo, 500 – so where's the difference?

"In Malaya, the British soldiers could do absolutely nothing unless the Malayan police called them and said, 'Help us'. In Borneo, there was no police force. The Malayan federation said to us, 'Get on with it,' and we did.

"Even talking about it destroys me. I had friends who died out there, and nobody knows where they're buried – and the public was never even told that we were at war."

News
Paper trail: the wedding photograph found in the rubble after 9/11 – it took Elizabeth Keefe 13 years to find the people in it
newsWho are the people in this photo? It took Elizabeth Stringer Keefe 13 years to find out
Arts and Entertainment
Evil eye: Douglas Adams in 'mad genius' pose
booksNew biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Sport
FootballFull debuts don't come much more stylish than those on show here
News
i100
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Life and Style
Kim Kardashian drawn backlash over her sexy swimsuit selfie, called 'disgusting' and 'nasty'
fashionCritics say magazine only pays attention to fashion trends among rich, white women
Arts and Entertainment
TVShows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Arts and Entertainment
Hit the roof: hot-tub cinema east London
architectureFrom pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
Travel
travel
News
The ecological reconstruction of Ikrandraco avatar is shown in this illustration courtesy of Chuang Zhao. Scientists on September 11, 2014 announced the discovery of fossils in China of a type of flying reptile called a pterosaur that lived 120 millions years ago and so closely resembled those creatures from the 2009 film, Avatar that they named it after them.
SCIENCE
Life and Style
tech
Arts and Entertainment
Matisse: The Cut-Outs exhibition attracted 562,000 visitors to the Tate Modern from April to September
art
Life and Style
Models walk the runway at the Tom Ford show during London Fashion Week Spring Summer 2015
fashionLondon Fashion Week 2014
News
Kenny G
news
News
peopleThe black actress has claimed police mistook her for a prostitute when she kissed her white husband
Life and Style
techIndian model comes with cricket scores baked in
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Energy Markets Analyst

£400000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: Job Title: Energy Markets An...

Junior Web Analyst – West Sussex – Up to £35k DOE

£30000 - £35000 Per Annum Plus excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions...

Nursery Manager

£22000 - £23000 per annum: Randstad Education Bristol: We are currently recrui...

Web Analyst – Permanent – Up to £40k - London

£35000 - £40000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: We are currently r...

Day In a Page

Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week