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Guards man a checkpoint on a rural road early in the war against communist insurgents of the Malayan National Liberation Army.

Holding the Line in Malaya

By Jon Guttman
September 2018 • Military History Magazine

  • Inspector Tun Hamzah of the Malayan Police Special Branch briefs team members before a joint police-military night operation in 1958. (Pictorial Press Ltd/Alamy Stock Photo)
  • Units from several British Commonwealth countries par- ticipated in counterinsurgency efforts in Malaya. Here a Ferret armored car backs patrolling troops from Company B of the 2nd Royal Australian Regiment. (Australian War Memorial hob/56/0751/mc)
  • A member of the elite British Parachute Regiment gathers his chute after landing near a communist-held village. Airborne operations allowed rapid insertion of forces into otherwise inaccessible areas. (Keystone/Getty mages)
  • An RAF crewman ensures that an airborne soldier’s parachute and static line clear the aircraft’s door during another jump into enemy territory. (Imperial War Museums (MAL 93))
  • MNLA insurgents conducted sabotage operations against soft targets. One such attack derailed seven cars of a daily mail train in Johore state. (Imperial War Museums (K 12991))
  • On leaving their armored personnel carrier, troops of the 1st Battalion, Royal West Kent Regiment, cross an expanse of lalang (tallgrass) before entering dense jungle. (Imperial War Museums (GOV 3828))
  • At a Singapore airfield a Royal Air Force armorer checks the tail fuze on one of a dozen 500-pound bombs loaded aboard an Avro Lincoln of No. 57 Squadron. The heavy bomber later hit MNLA targets. (Imperial War Museums (GOV 2267a))
  • Commonwealth forces made extensive use of native trackers in Malaya’s dense jungles. Here a sergeant of the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry instructs a Dayak tracker in the use of a No. 5 Mk I Lee-Enfield rifle. ( Imperial War Museums (DM 149))
  • Helicopters saw widespread use for troop insertion and ex- traction, cargo movement and casualty evacuation. Tactics developed during the emergency were further refined in later conflicts, including the Vietnam War. (Imperial War Museum (R 28937))
  • An Avro Lincoln of No. 1 Squad- ron, Royal Australian Air Force, drops 1,000-pound bombs on targets in the Malayan jungle. (Australian War Memorial (PR 00180))
  • A wounded MNLA fighter is held at gunpoint. More than 6,700 of his comrades were killed during the war, as were more than 500 Commonwealth troops, some 1,300 Malayan soldiers and police officers, and nearly 2,500 civilians. (Imperial War Museums (K 13104))
 
British administrators put down the 1948–60 communist uprising using a successful and surprising mix of counterinsurgency tactics 

In June 1948 communist insurgents in the Federation of Malaya murdered three British plantation owners. The next dozen years saw a guerrilla war in which every measure taken by the British to re-establish stability in their tin- and rubber-rich mandate seemed countered by the Malayan National Liberation Army (MNLA). The movement’s leader, Chin Peng, and his ablest lieutenants had learned their trade, ironically, with Britain’s covert Force 136, fighting the Japanese in World War II.

The MNLA ambush killing of Malayan High Commissioner Sir Henry Gurney on Oct. 6, 1951, sent shock waves throughout the federation. British fortunes had reached a nadir, as communist attacks had killed 1,275 British and Malayan troops. The insurgents had also killed 1,828 civilians and abducted nearly 500 others.

The Malayan Emergency had its turning point in 1952 when British Prime Minister Winston Churchill appointed Sir Gerald Templer Malayan high commissioner. Templer launched an all-out counterinsurgency, including the resettlement of civilians, an intense propaganda campaign to “win the hearts and minds” of the people, and monetary rewards to any communists who surrendered, turned in their weapons or turned on their comrades. Pivotal to Templer’s plan were his use of the Malayan Police Special Branch to gather intelligence; the decision to extend Malayan citizenship to Indian, Chinese and other ethnic groups in September 1952; and ultimately the independence of Malaya itself on Aug. 31, 1957. Its very “liberation” status rendered moot, the MNLA—never numbering more than 8,000 fighters at its peak—dissolved, and Chin Peng went into self-exile in southern Thailand and later Beijing.

Malaya declared a formal end to the emergency on July 31, 1960. The British Commonwealth’s relative success there has since been repeatedly compared to and contrasted with the U.S. failure in Vietnam.

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