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."

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