The Malayan Emergency began in February 1948 with terrorist attacks by Communist guerillas on European settlers in the Malay peninsula. The Emergency was declared in July of that year. The Communists were not prepared for the British response of aggressive counter-attacks and search and destroy tactics. The Communist units were very nearly destroyed in the ensuing running fights, but a pause caused by the delay of British reinforcements, and the death of the High Commissioner, allowed the Communist army time to regroup and retrain. The Communists continued their campaign: of either wooing the populace, or terrifying them into kicking the British out. Their campaign failed. The British employed one of their first helicopter units in a hearts-and-minds campaign, using the helicopters to evacuate military and civilian wounded to hospital, to bring in supplies and to provide troop transport.
The Communist force fell apart in 1960, after twelve years of jungle warfare. The British hearts-and-minds campaign was successful, in sharp contrast to the similar, but unsuccessful, campaign mounted by the Americans in Vietnam.
Malaya in the 1940s 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.
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 guerilla warfare. Incidents of terrorism were far more numerous than those of guerilla activity.
The murder of three European planters on 16 June 1948, near the small town of Sungei Spur in Perak, brought matters to a head and resulted in the High Commissioner, Sir Edward Gent, declaring an Emergency in parts of Perak and Johore. This 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 23 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 Gurkha 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 guerillas hard wherever he could find them. In the opening weeks of the conflict, this occurred frequently. The RAF started working the guerillas over in June 1948, using Spitfires to strafe the guerillas. In August they started to bomb the insurgent camps.
The government had also taken countermeasures against the guerillas. 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.
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 Gurkha 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 Gurkha 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 Lampur in Salangor, 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 16 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'.
The 'pause' was caused by the death of the High Commissioner, Sir Edward Gent, who was killed in an air accident in the UK on 2 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 guerilla warfare.