In 1960 British and Commonwealth forces finally succeeded in defeating a Communist revolt in Malaya. The campaign was one of the few successful counter-insurgency operations undertaken by the Western powers. Still studied today, the Emergency provides many important lessons on how such campaigns should be conducted.
In June 1948 a state of emergency was declared in the British colony of Malaya. The Malayan National Liberation Army (MNLA), the armed wing of the Malayan Communist Party (MCP), began attacking rubber plantations, mines and police stations, derailing trains and burning workers' houses. The term 'emergency' rather than 'war' was used because insurers would not have compensated plantation and mine owners if the latter label had been used.
The Communists of the MNLA were jungle based and supported by the impoverished Chinese population. Although many Chinese lived in the cities, others, known as 'squatters', lived at the fringes of the jungle and could aid the guerrillas. The MNLA and its supporters called the campaign the Anti-British National Liberation War.
The initial British reaction to the crisis was to introduce emergency legislation, allowing suspects to be detained without trial. Curfews and movement restrictions were also imposed. Malaya's original military garrison consisted of six Gurkha, three British and two Malay battalions. Reinforcements, including the 2nd Brigade of Guards, were sent from August 1948 onwards.
The newly arrived troops set up positions near villages and then sent out patrols. The guerrillas had the benefit of local knowledge whilst the British Army was hampered by a lack of good intelligence. The authorities were able to prevent the guerrillas from disrupting the economy, overrunning towns or controlling territory but they were unable to completely stop their activities.
In 1950 Lieutenant-General Sir Harold Briggs was appointed Director of Operations in Malaya. He realised the importance of isolating the guerrillas from their sources of food and creating a sense of security in populated areas so that people would be more willing to provide information. He also persuaded the High Commissioner, Sir Henry Gurney, to set up committees containing representatives of all civil and military agencies involved in the campaign so that a co-ordinated response to the guerrillas could be formulated. The Malayan Police and Special Branch were given the task of gathering information.
In an effort to split the active insurgents from their passive supporters, Chinese squatters were rehoused in purpose built new villages. Clean water, proper housing, education and medical care were provided. By the end of 1951 over 400,000 people had been resettled in 500 new villages. The guerrillas were frequently arrested or killed as they approached them in search of food. Many guerrillas surrendered, but these techniques took time to perfect and the insurgents were able to continue their campaign.
Despite British attempts to cut off the link between the guerrillas and the Chinese community, fighting continued. On 6 October 1951 the Communists managed to ambush and kill the High Commissioner. Shortly after this, Briggs retired and General Sir Gerald Templer was appointed both Director of Operations and High Commissioner. He embraced Briggs' ideas with energy, ensuring that a co-ordinated command structure was established.
General Templer placed great emphasis on the need to win the 'hearts and minds' of the population. He continued to build new settlements and promised independence once the guerrillas had been defeated. This won him the support of many nationalists. He also involved the local population in the fight against the guerrillas by increasing the number of Malay battalions and strengthening the Home Guard raised to defend the new villages. These measures helped unite the racially divided Malayan people against the insurrection. As the new policies began to take effect, the flow of information to the security forces increased.
The flow of new information allowed the British to take the offensive against the MNLA in jungle operations that usually called for stealth and a high degree of patience. British battalions normally spent three years in Malaya. As they were largely made up of National Servicemen they usually had a proportion of new troops who had to be taught how to live and fight in the tropical forests. Training occurred at a Jungle Warfare School, which also worked out the best tactics based on experience gained in the field.
From 1954 there were normally 24 infantry battalions in Malaya from a wide variety of Commonwealth countries, including the 2nd Battalion The Royal Australian Regiment and 1st Battalion The New Zealand Regiment. These were supported by specialised units such as the Special Air Service (SAS) Regiment. With a police force of 40,000 men it was now possible to clear an area of guerrillas. When an area had been swept it was designated a 'White Area' and restrictions on the local population were lifted, encouraging them to oppose the return of any insurgents.
In August 1957 the Federation of Malaya was granted independence and the insurrection lost its rationale as a war of colonial liberation. Many guerrillas gave up their fight. In 1960 the emergency was declared to be over. Over 500 soldiers and 1300 police had been killed during the conflict. Communist losses are estimated at over 6000 killed and 1200 captured. The campaign was one of the few successful counter-insurgency operations undertaken by the Western powers.
During operations in the Far East the British Army was convinced it needed a lighter, handier rifle for use in the jungle. Developed from 1944 onwards, the No 5 was basically a lightweight and shortened version of the No 4 Rifle, with a large flash eliminator on the muzzle. It continued in use after World War Two, but problems with the fearsome recoil and the zeroing of the sights meant it was not a popular weapon. Although declared an obsolete in July 1947 it continued to be used in Malaya in the 1950s, where the American M2 carbine eventually supplemented it.
This belt was captured during the Malayan Emergency and illustrates the type of kit used by the Communist guerrillas. It is an old British Pattern 37 webbing belt strengthened by leather inserts. The leather pouch is probably Chinese in origin and the associated parang, or knife, was locally made.
The Owen was an indigenous Australian design developed in 1942 and widely used in World War Two. It was much more reliable than the Sten which was regarded with suspicion by many soldiers particularly when used on jungle patrols. The Owen had an unusual overhead feeding magazine. However, it was a tough and reliable weapon. In Malaya it was available in considerable numbers and often provided most of a patrol's firepower. The design was so effective that it remained in service well into the 1960s.
Developed as a tropicalised and lightweight man-pack the No 88 set was carried in two webbing pouches, one containing the radio and the other the battery. Over 20,000 were produced and it was used in most theatres of operation. During the Malayan Emergency it was useful for communications with aircraft making supply drops in jungle clearings.
The M2, unlike its semi-automatic predecessor the M1 carbine, provided full automatic fire when needed, controlled by a single switch. It was often used with a 30 round magazine. As the Malayan Emergency developed it became a much sought after weapon amongst British units as it offered high firepower in jungle engagements. Although its cartridge had no great stopping power it was adequate for short-range actions and its lightness and reliability in humid conditions made it a successful jungle weapon.
In February 1952, following the assassination of the local High Commissioner, Templer was sent to Malaya to assume control of both the civil government and military campaign. Once there, he combined vigorous military operations against the insurgents' jungle bases with political reforms designed to win the 'hearts and minds' (Templer is credited with coining this phrase) of the Malayan community. The campaign was a striking success. When he relinquished his post in October 1954, government control over most of the country had been re-established. Templer was appointed Chief of the Imperial General Staff in 1955, and created a Field Marshal in 1956.
During the Malaya Emergency jungle patrols were always seeking to supplement their firepower. Self-loading shotguns and riot guns were frequently used. Many shotguns had 'sawn-off' barrels to make them handier in the dense undergrowth. Such weapons could provide devastating fire during short-range actions.