Before the Japanese invasion of Malaya, the Japanese…
"The answer lies not in pouring more troops into the jungle,
but in the hearts and minds of the Malayan People"
General Sir Gerald Templer
The defeat of the Communist insurgency in Malaya is still seen as a touchstone for counter-insurgency campaigning. It gave birth to the phrase “Hearts and Minds” that has been misused and abused since, but is at the core of winning against a guerilla enemy.
At the outset the British got it wrong – big time. Having been defeated by the Japanese in World War II in 1945 the returning British administration was keen to reassert authority as well as ensure that the supply of valuable strategic raw material like rubber and tin was re-established to assist in the post-war reconstruction of the United Kingdom. The British administration mishandled strikes and protests and this played into the hands of the Communists.
The Malayan Communist Party (MCP) had been around for some time. It was formed in 1930 and saw itself as part of the global struggle against the twin evils of capitalism and colonialism. The MCP had actually joined forces with the British to fight a covert campaign against the Japanese forming the Malayan People’s Anti Japanese Army (MPAJA). The British provided weapons and equipment and SOE officers trained MPAJA members.
Now it became the MNLA – the Malayan National Liberation Army, fighting for independence from the Colonial power, but only offering Communist control as its replacement. The MCP saw not only the British administration as the enemy but also anyone who was not a Communist. Moreover to call it “Malayan” was a misnomer since the MCP drew on support from 500,000 rural Chinese rather than the Malays or indigenous jungle groups.
The insurgency was led by Chin Peng and at its height in 1951 would have about 8,000 guerrillas supported by 60,000 Min Yuen or Peoples’ Movement. They took their revenge on local Malayans working directly or indirectly with the British. They called it ‘the war of the running dogs’. The guerillas sabotaged the livelihood of the people attacking tin mines and rubber plantations as well as the transport infrastructure.
The MCP, used terror as weapon. .As their atrocities escalated, a State of Emergency was declared in June 1948. Initially, the MNLA enjoyed tactical advantage over a war-weary and unprepared foe.
The initial British strategy was primarily to guard important economic targets such as mines and plantation estates. Subsequently, General Sir Harold Briggs, the British Army's Director of Operations in Malaya, developed an overall strategy known as the Briggs Plan. Its central tenet was that the best way to defeat an insurgency such as the government was facing was to cut the insurgents off from their supporters amongst the population.
The Briggs Plan was multi-faceted. However one aspect of it has become particularly well known: this was the forced relocation of some 500,000 rural Malayans, including 400,000 Chinese, from squatter communities on the fringes of the forests into guarded camps. These villages were newly constructed in most cases, and were surrounded by barbed wire, police posts and floodlit areas, the purpose of which was both to keep the inhabitants in and the guerrillas out. People resented this at first, but some soon became content with the better living standards in the villages. They were given money and ownership of the land they lived on. Removing a population which might be sympathetic to guerrillas was a counter-insurgency tactic which the British had used before, notably against the Boer Commandos in the Second Boer War (1899–1902). In the Boer war the camps that housed Boer women and children were designated Concentration Camps. In Malaya the term “New Villages” was used and the operation was more humanely and efficiently conducted.
All of the senior officers who directed the campaign were veterans of World War II who had seen action in North Africa, Europe and the Far East. Men like General Sir Harold Briggs, General Roy Urquhart, General Sir Gerald Templer and Sir Robert “Bob” Thompson would bring a clarity of vision to defeating the MNLA verging on the ruthless.
On 6 October 1951 it looked as if the British and Maslay government were losing the campaign when the High Commissioner Sir henry Gurney was ambushed, he was shot to death on his way to Fraser's Hill for a meeting. According to Lady Gurney who was with him at the time, he sacrificed himself to the attackers in order to protect the lives of his wife and the driver Ching peng said the ambush was routine, the killing by chance, and the guerrillas only learned the High Commissioner was among the dead from news reports. In fact the attack gave the campaign renewed determination and marked the “tipping point” beloved of analysts
The Empire strikes back
As part of the British Commonwealth Strategic Reserve in Southeast Asia Australian, New Zealand, Southern Rhodesia and Fijian troops were deployed to Malaya and would play a vital role alongside Malay and British troops in securing the final victory
Among the troops deployed was the New Zealand SAS (NZSAS) which had been formed in 1954. Selection and training at Waiouru was tough with a high failure rate. Out of 800 volunteers only 138 passed
In June 1955 a company sized force had been formed under command of Major Frank. Rennie and within six months was deployed to Malaya. They completed a parachute course at RAF Changi before they deployed into the jungle. General Templer was brutally direct when he warned Rennie before his men deployed
“If you are bloody slack, you’ll buy it”.
Locating the rural population in “New Villages” ensured that they would not supply the Communist insurgents with food, money or information. Communist fund raisers and organisers were tracked by the Special Branch and other intelligence organisations some were assassinated, while others were persuaded to collaborate and “turned” through blackmail and bribery.
Some of the lessons of the campaign would be adopted by the United States in the war in Vietnam and the Americans would see Sir Robert Thompson as the exponent of a war-winning strategy. However the conditions were different and what worked for Malaya failed in Vietnam.
It was understanding the human psyche – the weaknesses and strengths of the tough Communist guerrillas that was one of the key factors in their defeat. One of the most skilled exponents was the shrewd C.C. Too the Chinese Assistant to the Head of the Emergency Information Service Psychological warfare operations would yield 2,702 members of the MNLA who deserted their comrades and some were then prepared to lead the security forces back to their old camps.
Many of the British soldiers who fought in Malaya were conscripts – National Servicemen called up to serve for two years in the armed forces. Some junior ranks were intelligent and articulate men who have left perceptive memoires of their experience. In a time when television was a rare luxury, newspapers and many magazines published only in black and white and it was the weekly visit to the pictures that included the Pathe News and moving images - some in colour – the sights, smells and colours of Malaya seemed exotic and remote. Along with Korea, Cyprus and Suez, Malaya would be a war fought by National Servicemen who would be asked to face death and injury fighting an enemy who did not pose a direct threat to the British Isles.
Among the British formations that would be deployed in the conflict was the Special Air Service – the SAS had been disbanded at the end of World War II and remained only as a Territorial Army formation 21 SAS The Artists' Rifles. It would be re-born as 22 SAS in Malaya operating deep in the jungle and after a shaky start and build a reputation for endurance, stamina, patience and ruthless efficiency.
The Emergency that lasted twelve years saw 1,346 Malayan troops and policemen and 519 British troops killed in action and nearly two and a half thousand wounded. The MNLA, which at its maximum strength numbered 8,000 with about 40,000 supporters, suffered 7,710 killed, 1,289 wounded and 1,287 captured. They had been hunted, ambushed, corralled and killed by 250,000 Malayan Home Guard, 40,000 British and Commonwealth troops, 37,000 Special Constables and 24,000 Federation Police.
Victory was also achieved by patience, excellent and effective intelligence work and demanding low level soldiering. The heavy fire-power designed for fighting a conventional European war had little place in a conflict in which the aim was to sever the connection between the insurgents and the population and win over their “Hearts and Minds”.