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

Click to follow
The Independent Online
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)