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The Emergency 1948-1960


The aftermath of World War II left a number of legacies to the world - a series of minor wars. Although these were little wars they were still quite big enough to the men who had to fight them. One of the first of these wars was against the Communists in South East Asia.

The Malaya Emergency was waged against the Communist Terrorists who felt that it was time for the countries in region to overthrow the 'Capitalist and Imperialist' governments. The success of the communists in China in the late 1940's had boosted the morale of communists worldwide.

Malaya in the 1940's was a country that consisted of four-fifths jungle. Most of this jungle was primary forest, land that had never been cleared for use. Huge trees blocked out most of the sunlight in these coastal forests and swamps. Because of the density of the trees visibility was cut, in places, to only a few yards. Where clearings had been made, from time to time, secondary forest had grown up. The secondary forest consisted of clearings that had been allowed to revert to their natural state. The trees were not as tall or fully grown and there was invariably thick undergrowth, which inhibited movement. Although termed secondary forest, this growth really deserved the name of jungle - a loose expression applied to many of the parts of the country where the undergrowth was fairly thick. The remainder of the country consisted of towns, villages, agricultural clearings, rice fields, rubber estates and mines. At the southern tip was the small, fortified island of Singapore, about 220 square miles in area, joined to the mainland by a three-quarter mile long causeway.

The climate, then as now, was tropical and humid. Ninety inches of rain fell annually, spread fairly evenly throughout the year, although the monsoon seasons were distinguishable. There was little variation in temperature over the months. The equator lay only about 100 miles to the south of Singapore. Only the western part of the country had been developed to any extent. It contained most of the total of about 3.3 million acres of rubber estates (in 1939), then supplying about 40 per cent of the world's rubber requirements, and over 700 tin mines, producing 25 000 tons of tin annually. A railway ran the length of the peninsula on the western side as well as a good, all weather road. Another railway crossed the country diagonally to reach Kota Bahru in the north-eastern corner. There were many smaller road complexes, usually near towns, estates or mines. As well as the roads, rail and sea, the rivers served as a means of communication.

Pre-war Malaya was made up of a number of political Federated and Unfederated States, and a Crown Colony. These were ruled by a Sultan, assisted by the Malayan Civil Service, the senior posts of which were held by British personnel. The Federated and Unfederated States had almost complete autonomy, and were merely under British protection. The Crown Colony was that of the Straits Settlements, which embraced Singapore, Penang and Malacca and was governed directly by Britain. After the election of Chin Peng to the position of Secretary General of the Malay Communist Party in 1947, the communists strengthened their resolve to defeat the British Colonialists. They had stored in the inhospitable jungles of Malaya a considerable amount of arms and equipment they had captured from the Japanese during the war.

The Onset

The Malayan Communist Party (MCP) initially believed that the War of Insurrection would be over by August 1948 after their troops had worn down the British troops in jungle warfare. But the MCP had internal difficulties. It was a disunited and discontented party. It also suffered from the loss of practically all the Chinese peasant support gained during the Occupation, and the fact that the British did have a political plan for Malaya.

The MCP failed miserably in its attempt to entice both Malays and Indians to join. A short-lived secret agreement with the left-wing Malay Nationalist Party failed, as police intervention and arrests crippled the latter, and brought the liaison to an end. The MCP had approximately 3 000 active party members in early 1948. As many again were active helpers. Throughout April, May and June of that year the MCP terrorism increased. Malay, Indian and Chinese employees of Europeans were threatened, beaten and sometimes killed to force them to desert their jobs. Several Chinese Nationalist leaders and personalities were assassinated. Large quantities of rubber were stolen and thousands of rubber trees slashed to prevent them yielding latex. Mining machinery was damaged and workers' huts burned. At this stage the MPABA (Malayan Peoples Anti-British Army) was still recovering its arms from secret caches in the jungle and was not in a fit state to engage troops in guerrilla warfare. Incidents of terrorism were far more numerous than those of guerrilla activity.

The Opening Action

The Elphin Estate near Sungei Siput in Perak was typical of a well-run rubber plantation. British managed with a labour force consisting of Malay's, Chinese and East Indians. On the morning of Wednesday 16th June 1948, the estate manager, 50 year old Mr. A. E. Walker from Edinburgh, after his usual early start to the day, returned to his bungalow on the estate to join his wife for breakfast - just as he did on most days. At approximately 08:00 hours, two communist terrorists of the Malaya Communist Party (MCP) arrived on a motorbike armed with sten guns. They fired through the door and window of the bungalow killing Mr. Walker instantly. His wife miraculously was unhurt. Within hours of the murder terrorists arrived at the office of Mr. Alison from Putney, the 50 year old manager of the Phinson Estate near Ipoh. After a brief exchange of conversation, a ploy by the terrorists, Mr. Alison and his young assistant, Leonard Christian from Radlett in Hertfordshire were overpowered. With their hands bound behind their backs, they were murdered in cold blood. Also on that day a Chinese construction worker in the same district, and a Chinese foreman from the Subur Estate near Kuala Lumpar, were also killed.

The machined-gunning to death of the three European planters brought matters to a head and resulted in the High Commissioner, Sir Edward Gent, declaring an Emergency in parts of Perak and Johore. The emergency was extended to the whole of the country the next day. Many had urged this step for some time. The war had begun. The police were given extra powers of search, detention and of enforcing a curfew, and the armed forces were brought in to help them. On 23rd July the MCP was declared an unlawful society.

The MPABA did not immediately engage the British armed forces. It was insufficiently organised and incapable of doing so. It would not risk itself even if in overwhelming strength. As soon as it was able it began to attack small village police stations, which usually had less than a dozen Malay policemen to defend them. Otherwise, it practised terrorist activities and sabotage on machinery, plantations and communications.

In the whole country, the British and Malay armed force amounted to five British, two Malay and six Ghurkha battalions. British artillery regiments were converted to infantry roles, and were referred to as infantry regiments. This practice was followed for the rest of the Emergency. The RAF had 100 aircraft in the country. The Federation Police numbered 10 223, nearly all Malays. The military was commanded by Major-general C.H. Boucher, GOC Malayan District. He resisted calls for garrisons to be posted in all parts of the country, instead using his troops to hit the guerrillas hard wherever he could find them. In the opening weeks of the conflict, this occurred frequently. The RAF started working the guerrillas over in June 1948, using Spitfires to strafe the guerrillas. In August they started to bomb the insurgent camps

The government had also taken countermeasures against the guerrillas. It had formed a Special Constabulary. Some 24 000 Malays were enrolled in this during the first three months of the Emergency. They were given arms immediately and employed primarily in guard duties. Training took place when time permitted. These tactics enabled the troops and police to conduct offensive operations from the beginning. Small defensive systems grew up around European offices, works and bungalows in the interior of the country. They were protected by barbed wire fences and other devices, and guarded by Special Constables. These measures, encouraging the Europeans to stay put, thwarted the first stage of the MCP insurgency plan.

The second measure was a system of national registration and the introduction of identity cards. These were issued to everyone over the age of 12 years, and had to be carried at all times. The MCP was bitterly opposed to this and the MPABA stopped people and tore their cards up. The MCP also initiated an unsuccessful campaign to encourage people to destroy their cards. Owing to the frequent and rigorous police checks of cards, the MCP hierarchy was forced to flee Singapore and the towns, and to go underground in the jungle.

Colonel W.N. Gary, who had been Inspector-general of the Palestine police, was appointed Commissioner of Malay Federation Police. Immediately he obtained arms for his men and established a radio network that linked all police stations, no matter how small. He borrowed radio operators from the services until his men had learned to operate the radios themselves. This enabled warning of communist attacks to be given so troops could be sent to provide prompt assistance.

The Ensuing Struggle

With the failure of stage one of the insurgence plan, Lau Yew (MCP leader) ordered intensified attacks on small police stations and European assets. Some of these were successful, others were not. Typically, they involved 200 or more communists attacking a police station defended by a sergeant and ten constables. The attacks were a shambles. The communists suffered terrible casualties. They were also hit hard by the British and Ghurkha troops, who, aided by aircraft, were able to catch up with them on several occasions.

The newly formed MPABA was in no fit state to be mounting company-sized assaults. It had difficulty in merely assembling the units in camps in the jungle and supplying them. There were few competent officers and the men were untrained. Few knew how to handle their weapons and their knowledge of tactics was non-existent. Discipline was poor and morale was worse. In short, the MPABA was suffering from bad or non-existent command, ability and organization. Their opponents, on the other hand, were jungle trained British and Ghurkha troops, a number of whom had served in Burma against the Japanese. They were trained and disciplined, and had effective command, adequate supplies, and air support from the RAF.

The dismal failures of the MPABA forced Lau Yew to try to gain a suitable location for its GHQ. He chose the small town of Kajang, to the south of Kuala Lumpur in Selangor, as a likely site. He began to assemble troops in the area, and was in the process of organising an attack when he was killed in a clash with the Security Forces (the Armed Forces, Special Constables and Home Guard) on 16th July 1948, a month after the Emergency had started. This was a bad blow for the MPABA. Lau Yew had been a competent military leader, whereas his successor, Chen Ping, was inexperienced, having been only a junior officer in the MJALA in the Japanese occupation. The MPABA was nearly shattered after Lau Yew's death. Had action by the Security Forces been intensified it would have disintegrated completely. Unfortunately there was a Government 'pause'.

Pause is the Action

The 'pause' was caused by the death of the High Commissioner, Sir Edward Gent, who was killed in an air accident in the United Kingdom on 2nd July. The delay in announcing his successor left the helm vacant during a critical period. As well, expected British reinforcement did not arrive. Although General Boucher conducted the war ably and energetically with the troops he had available, more troops would have sealed the MPABA's fate.

At the end of July the MPABA was in a dismal state. It had no leader, no victories under its belt, morale was falling, and desertions were increasing. Troops were untrained. The MPABA was losing men and had still not learnt how to cope in the jungle.

The Government 'pause', which lasted for two months, probably saved the MPABA. In August, the first two extra British units arrived, but by this time the MPABA had got over its teething troubles and was able to get by. A complete British brigade arrived in October. In September Sir Henry Gurney was appointed to be the new High Commissioner of the Malayan Federation. The 'pause' was over, and the war against the insurgents intensified. Jungle warfare teams led by former Force 136 and Chindit officers, under the title Ferret Force, located many of the insurgent camps and units. A number of Dyaks (Borneo head-hunters) was attached to the Force to aid the Security Forces. Once a camp or unit was located, the Ferret Force was brought in for the kill. However, the Ferret Force had only a few months of life, owing to disagreements over policy, administration and methods. This again was unfortunate, as this is the one certain method of countering guerrilla warfare.

The 12 year Struggle

In 1949, an intense campaign was mounted against the guerrillas, hundreds of whom were slain or captured. One effect of the jungle warfare was to bring leaders of the various ethnic and religious communities closer together with more mutual understanding. The communists waged a violent and ultimately unsuccessful struggle supported by only a minority of the Chinese community. The British struggled to suppress the insurgency by military means, including an unpopular strategy that the government-implemented entitled Briggs plan (1950) that resettled so-called "squatter" Chinese farmers, who were easy prey for raiding guerrillas, in protected Malay areas, basically a controlled scheme of New Villages. Although this policy isolated villagers from guerrillas, it also increased the government's unpopularity. Also in 1950 Britain, as leader of the Commonwealth, requested Australian and New Zealand assistance in countering the communist terrorists. Unlike the American policy in Vietnam of "search and destroy" and then return to base, the British and Commonwealth soldiers in Malaya played the guerrillas at their own game by living out in the jungle for weeks on end and ambushing them. By 1953 these tactics had succeeded in forcing Chin Peng to move his headquarters into Thailand. He was not able to establish any liberated areas and by the end of 1958 there were only 250 guerrillas operating in Malaya.

In 1951, the terrorists increased their activities, destroyed rubber trees, intimidated plantation workers, and assassinated the British high commissioner. Sir Gerald Templer (1898-1979), the new high commissioner (1952), headed the government forces, began a concerted anti-rebel campaign, and encouraged cooperation among the diverse Malay peoples. Rigid food control in suspected rebel areas forced many terrorists to surrender or starve. By 1954, the communist high command in Malaya had moved to Sumatra.

The British finally achieved success when, under the leadership of British high commissioner Sir Gerald Templer, they began addressing political and economic grievances as well, increasingly isolating the rebels. Promising independence, British officials began negotiating with the various ethnic leaders, including the UMNO and the Malayan Chinese Association (MCA), formed in 1949 by wealthy Chinese businessmen. A coalition consisting of the UMNO (led by the aristocratic moderate Tunku Abdul Rahman), the MCA, and the Malayan Indian Congress contested the national legislative elections held in 1955 and won all but one seat; this established a permanent political pattern of a ruling coalition, known first as the Alliance Party and later as the National Front, that united ethnically based, mostly elite-led parties of moderate to conservative political leanings, with the UMNO as the major force. After the Malay Federation became an independent state in the British Commonwealth (1957), the war petered out; increasing numbers of terrorists surrendered (a government amnesty was offered to them in 1955, and many accepted it). Still, a hard core of several hundred communist guerrillas continued to operate in the thick jungles along the Malay-Thai border until 1960, when they were finally defeated.

The emergency had lasted for 12 years, involving 350,000 personnel and cost 12,000 lives. The communists had been reduced to a handful of vagabonds, living in hiding and reduced to eating roots and berries. As for Chin Peng, the notorious leader of the Communist Terrorists, he eventually escaped from Malaya and fled to China. He then lived freely in Bangkok, Thailand - uncaptured and unpunished, yet publicly admitting responsibility for all the death and misery he caused.

During these 12 years, nearly 900 contacts with the enemy were reported. 100,000 British Armed Services personnel from 60 units were involved with the police, the Commonwealth, Malaya and Ghurkha Forces. The majority of the British that served were young conscripts called up by the introduction of the National Service Act of 1947. They were fresh out of training with little experience for what lay ahead but soon to learnt.

During the emergency, 6707 of the enemy were killed - 4000 either captured or surrendered. 446 British Armed Forces personnel lost their lives. The combined security force's losses including civilians, totalled 5313 - dead or presumed missing. The Malayan Government finally decided to declare the Emergency over on 31st July 1960.

Remembering the Conflict

A small Christian cemetery called "Little Acre" is to be found in the town of Batu Gajah, 15 miles from Ipoh, Perak. A commemorative service is held by the Planters Association's of Malaysia to remember all those who made the supreme sacrifice during the Malaya emergency, the 2nd World War and the Borneo Indonesian Confrontation. This ceremony continues every year.


The 3rd East Anglian Regiment (16/44th Foot) was formed in 1958 while in Dortmund, Germany, from where it deployed to Malaya from 1959 -62. That tour as part of the Commonwealth Brigade saw the Regiment on operations in the final phase of the Malaya emergency.


Smith, E D Counter-Insurgency Operations 1: Malaya and Borneo, Ian Allan Ltd, 1985
James, H & Sheil-Small, D. The Undeclared War, Leo Cooper Ltd, 1971
Miller, H. Jungle War in Malaya, The Campaign against Communism 1948-60, Arthur Barker Ltd, 1972
Clutterbuck, R. The Long War, The Emergency in Malaya 1948-1960. Cassell & Co Ltd, 1966
P. Dennis and J. Grey, Emergency and Confrontation: Australian military operations in Malaya and Borneo 1950-1966,
Allen and Unwin and the Australian War Memorial, Sydney, 1996.
Peter Dennis et al., The Oxford companion to Australian military history, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1995.
Smith, E D Counter-Insurgency Operations 1: Malaya and Borneo, Ian Allan Ltd, 1985
James, H & Sheil-Small, D. The Undeclared War, Leo Cooper Ltd, 1971
Miller, H. Jungle War in Malaya, The Campaign against Communism 1948-60, Arthur Barker Ltd, 1972
Clutterbuck, R. The Long War, The Emergency in Malaya 1948-1960. Cassell & Co Ltd, 1966

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