Rear Window: Expedition in the jungle: When the British fought and won in Malaysia

Share
Related Topics
FOR 12 years, from 1948 to 1960, British troops fought in a jungle war in Malaya against Communist insurgents. It is remembered by strategists as a rare example of the defeat of a guerrilla army by conventional forces, a feat which the Americans later aspired but failed to emulate in Vietnam.

But it is probably best known for the involvement of men on national service, a couple of whom - Leslie Thomas and Anthony Burgess - immortalised the experience in literature. This was the war of the 'virgin soldiers'.

Malaya was ultimately to become part of the modern federation of Malaysia, whose Prime Minister, Mahathir Mohamad, is today so angry with Britain over the Pergau dam affair.

The insurgency arose in part from ethnic divisions and in part from political uncertainty on the path to independence. The Communists drew support almost entirely from among the ethnic Chinese who accounted for two-fifths of the population. The Chinese enjoyed few rights and many of them believed the British and the majority Malays were conspiring to entrench Malay domination.

The terrain was ideal for guerrilla fighting. The peninsula has a spine of high mountains and most of the country was covered by dense jungle. The insurgents, moreover, had the advantage of experience and training, for during the war against the Japanese many of the same people had fought in the resistance, equipped and advised by Britain.

Fighting broke out in June 1948, when a number of British rubber planters and tin-mine officials were murdered, and reached its peak in 1951-52, when the British High Commissioner, Sir Henry Gurney, was murdered. By then the military presence had risen to 30,000, including some Gurkhas, East Africans and Australians.

The British strategy had some notable characteristics. From an early stage a policy was adopted of moving rural Chinese populations into 'New Villages', surrounded by barbed wire, perimeter lights and police guards. They could come and go by day, under supervision, but at night they were locked in and the countryside was a free-fire zone. By the end of 1952 there were more than 500 New Villages, enclosing almost 500,000 people.

British forces also employed 'area bombing'. Heavy Lincoln bombers flew over the jungle, scattering big 1,000lb and 500lb bombs where it was believed insurgents were active. This is thought to have had only a limited effect - one squadron was found to have dropped 17,500 tons of bombs over eight years and killed only 16 insurgents.

Another feature of the campaign was the propaganda effort. An official history records that in the year 1950 alone 53 million leaflets were distributed - 10 for every inhabitant of the country - and by 1954 this reached 100 million. There were almost 100 public-address and cinema units on constant tour, reaching an audience of a million people a month.

The real fighting, however, was done in the jungle, where conditions were arduous and combat brutal. The worst was over by 1954, but occasional skirmishes continued and the insurgents did not end their campaign until 1960. In all, it has been estimated, 11,000 people died, about half of them

insurgents and 356 of them British. In money terms, the cost of the emergency was pounds 700m, of which Britain provided pounds 520m.

By 1960 Malaya was independent and King Hisamuddin Alam Shah declared: 'The kind of war we have fought usually produces one of three results: victory for the Communists; the division of the country or a state of endless struggle.' That a different conclusion had been produced was, he said, 'not only a victory for our nation but also a victory for democracy - the first occasion on which the democratic countries have defeated Communism'.

(Photograph omitted)

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Data Warehouse & Business Intelligence Co-ordinator

£35000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Required skills include SQL querying, SSRS, u...

Ashdown Group: C#.Net Developer - C#, ASP.Net, PHP, HTML, JavaScript, CSS

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Ashdown Group: C#.Net Developer - C#, ASP.Net, HTML...

Argyll Scott International: Senior Business Analyst- Insurance

Negotiable: Argyll Scott International: Senior Business Analyst - Insurance ...

Recruitment Genius: Property Manager

£25000 - £29000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This independent, growing Sales...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

i Editor's Letter: The demise of a Sixties monster

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
A CCTV camera is seen in front of a large poster opposite in central London  

Home Office is creating more powers to turn everyone into suspects – but leave us no safer

Shami Chakrabarti
Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

Sarkozy returns

The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game
There's a Good Girl exhibition: How female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising

In pictures: There's a Good Girl exhibition

The new exhibition reveals how female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising
UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover - from advent calendars to doll's houses

UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover

It worked with cupcakes, doughnuts and macarons so no wonder someone decided to revamp the humble biscuit
Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

It's no surprise that the building game born in Sweden in 2009 and now played by millions, has imitators keen to construct their own mega money-spinner
The King's School is way ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology

Staying connected: The King's School

The school in Cambridgeshire is ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology. Richard Garner discovers how teachers and pupils stay connected
Christmas 2014: 23 best women's perfumes

Festively fragrant: the best women's perfumes

Give a loved one a luxe fragrance this year or treat yourself to a sensual pick-me-up
Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund: Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition

Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund

The Ox celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition
Billy Joe Saunders vs Chris Eubank Jnr: When two worlds collide

When two worlds collide

Traveller Billy Joe Saunders did not have a pampered public-school upbringing - unlike Saturday’s opponent Chris Eubank Jnr
Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
Putin’s far-right ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

Putin’s far-right ambition

Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU
Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

Escape to Moominland

What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?