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To win a brutal bush war in Malaya, General Sir Gerald Templer went back to the basics.

“Over large areas of the country,” wrote British journalist Malcolm Muggeridge in the London Daily Telegraph, “law and order have, to all intents and purposes, broken down. Communications, especially by rail, are continuously interrupted; road travel is hazardous, and often requires an armored vehicle and an armed escort to be tolerably safe.” Such was the state of affairs in the British colony of Malaya in February 1952, on the eve of Gerald Templer’s arrival as British high commissioner to take charge of what could fairly be called a “quagmire.” The country was then in the throes of a widespread and destructive insurgency.

Yet within months of Templer’s assumption of command, the British had broken the insurgents’ momentum, and by the end of his 28 months in command, they had sent the insurgents irrevocably on a downward slope. That reversal of fortune is well known, but the reasons behind it remain hotly disputed. Those reasons are of interest not only as crucial details of the historical record, but also as guideposts for the future. The lessons of what was called the Malayan Emergency are among the most frequently cited historical precedents for subsequent American and British counterinsurgency doctrine and operations.

The Malayan Emergency began in May 1948 when the nation’s communist party, frustrated in its efforts to win political power by legal means, began attacking government officials and assassinating plantation managers. Headquartered in the colony’s dense jungles, the communists marshaled thousands of veteran soldiers, nearly all of them ethnic Chinese, who had fought the Japanese in World War II. Communist cadres recruited extensively among the ethnic Chinese squatters in Malaya’s western lowlands, while the colonial government, dominated by ethnic Malays, had far less success in gaining the cooperation of its Chinese population.

In response to the outbreak of armed violence, the colonial administration increased the size of the police force from 9,000 to 50,000 in just six months. Although administrators found enough men to put in uniform, they did not pay sufficient attention to quality control, training and supervision, with the result that police leaders were woefully deficient in experience, competence and integrity. One senior British officer explained, “Inexperienced people often think that you have but to organize a force or service on paper, equip it with suitable weapons and fill the establishment with men.” It was “a hopeless attitude,” he concluded, because “it is men that count, not bodies.”

The Malayan civil administration, staffed at the critical district level by British civil servants, also suffered from severe leadership deficits. The British government did not send district administrators with sufficient experience or language skills, and some of those it did send were actually opposed to Britain’s Malaya policy. The head of the administration, High Commissioner Sir Henry Gurney, spent most of his time in his office on administrative tasks and rarely visited the districts in the countryside to see how his subordinates were performing.

With the police and civil authorities unable to contain the spreading insurgency, 4,000 British army regulars entered the fray. Their intervention was crucial when, in late 1948, insurgent forces attempted to take over Malayan towns in emulation of the Chinese communists’ recent conventional attacks on China’s towns and cities. British battalions thwarted such initiatives in Malaya and forced the insurgents to revert to guerrilla tactics. The British infantry regulars were able to push the guerrillas back into the jungle but lacked intelligence on the whereabouts of the enemy and seldom caught any of them.

In 1950, buoyed by the final defeat of Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists in China, the Malayan guerrillas intensified their offensive operations. They concentrated attacks on the dispersed Malayan police forces, killing some 100 policemen per month. As the situation deteriorated, London sent Lt. Gen. Sir Harold Briggs in April 1950 to take charge of the security forces. A distinguished veteran of World War II Asian jungle warfare, he quickly developed a new strategy that became known as the Briggs Plan. Central to his strategy was the relocation of the ethnic Chinese population into concentrated settlements that would be easier to defend against guerrilla intrusion. The plan also called for recruitment of the ethnic Chinese into local militias, known collectively as the Home Guard, and for the strengthening of the civil administration and the Special Branch, the police force’s intelligence arm.

The implementation of the Briggs Plan fell well short of expectations. Army and police commanders failed to adhere to some of Briggs’ guidelines. With ongoing leadership problems, the police remained ineffective at collecting information and withstanding insurgent attacks. The Home Guard was generally inept and, in some cases, disloyal. Indeed, many Home Guard units performed so poorly that the government refused to issue them weapons.

During the fall of 1951, the British in Malaya suffered several sharp blows that would, in time, prove fortuitous: On October 6, Gurney was motoring from Kuala Lumpur to the resort at Fraser’s Hill when armed insurgents ambushed his convoy, killing him. The next month, Briggs was evacuated from Malaya with a tropical illness, and he died shortly afterward. The insurgents intensified their attacks to capitalize on the chaotic situation, and the counterinsurgency drifted.

On the other side of the world, meanwhile, British parliamentary elections returned Winston Churchill to power just after Gurney’s assassination. Following recommendations from Field Marshal Sir William Slim, Field Marshal Sir Bernard Montgomery and other successful World War II generals, Churchill interviewed Maj.Gen. Sir Gerald Templer for the job of commander in Malaya. Churchill quickly concluded that Templer deserved his stellar reputation and in January 1952 offered him the position of British high commissioner in Malaya. Churchill promised whatever support Templer deemed necessary, including top-notch personnel. Templer accepted the assignment with the remark that having “the men to do the job” was “of primary importance.”

Templer had dropped out of school as a teenager to fight in World War I. Although he performed poorly at Sandhurst, the army retained him due to its dire need for infantry officers. Templer arrived in France in October 1917 but saw little action thanks to a series of mishaps and coincidences that spared him from harm. In March 1918, for example, Templer was hospitalized with diphtheria just before his 800-man battalion plunged into the First Battle of the Somme and suffered 763 casualties.

Templer spent much of the interwar period in the Middle East, gaining significant experience in battling guerrillas while serving in Palestine. During World War II, he became the British army’s youngest corps commander but then relinquished that position in order to command the British 47th Infantry Division in the Italian campaign. The 47th played a critical role in preventing the Wehrmacht from overrunning the Anzio beachhead in February 1944. When the war ended, the British put Templer in charge of their sector of occupied Germany, and he set about the task with characteristic vigor. Most famously, he fired the mayor of Cologne—future West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer—for inactivity.

According to one popular interpretation of the Malayan Emergency, Templer reversed the war’s momentum by introducing a new counterinsurgency strategy and disseminating new tactics through a doctrinal manual that later influenced U.S. Army and Marine Corps warfighting doctrine. But in actuality, Templer did not make major changes in strategy or tactics, relying instead on the strategy of the Briggs Plan. The doctrinal manual Templer first published in 1952—The Conduct of Anti-Terrorist Operations in Malaya—merely codified tactics that had been in use for years. Derived from Britain’s conflicts in colonial South Africa (especially the Second Boer War), Burma, Palestine and the initial experiences in Malaya, those tactics had been disseminated in the first years of the Malayan counterinsurgency through a series of pamphlets and in school instruction (in 1948 the British established a jungle warfare school in Malaya, with instruction based largely on lessons learned in the World War II Burma campaign against the Japanese).

Templer’s stunning success resulted, instead, from superior implementation of existing strategy and tactics. The key to improving implementation in Malaya, as in nearly all counterinsurgencies, was bettering the quality of field commanders. Theorists have characterized counterinsurgency as either “population-centric” warfare, in which the loyalty of the population is the deciding factor, or as “enemy-centric” warfare, in which the destruction of the enemy is paramount. But Templer’s example suggests counterinsurgency is best viewed as “leader-centric” warfare, since obtaining the support of the population, defeating the enemy’s armed forces and nearly everything else in counterinsurgency hinges on the talents and effectiveness of leaders.

Accordingly, Templer began by replacing weak senior leaders. Among those to fall under his ax was his top subordinate, Malayan Federation Chief Secretary Sir Vincent del Tufo, whom the British secretary of state for colonies labeled a man with “no power of command” who “gives out no inspiration” and “is, of course, quite useless as chief secretary.” Taking advantage of Churchill’s offer of top-quality leaders, Templer reached across the British Empire for the best senior executives; he picked as his intelligence operations chief Alec Peterson, a grammar school headmaster from Shropshire who had distinguished himself in World War II as the head of black propaganda operations in Malaya.

Templer’s next step was to fix leadership problems at the middle and lower levels. Like most senior leaders who have excelled at counterinsurgency, Templer delegated broad operational authority to local commanders. Rather than insisting those commanders adhere to doctrine, he let them decide which counterinsurgency methods and principles were applicable in their areas, knowing that problems and solutions varied widely across the country. At the same time, Templer was so concerned about micromanagement by officials serving between himself and local commanders that he gave his phone number to lower-level commanders and told them to report any efforts by others to interfere in their work.

With command thoroughly decentralized, success depended upon the quality of those local leaders. Templer addressed local leadership on both the civil and military sides, for Churchill had given him the combined civil and military authority that had previously been divided between Gurney and Briggs. Unlike Gurney, Templer left most administrative matters to two of his deputies and spent far more time in the field visiting police posts, infantry battalion commands, district government headquarters and villages across the country. Arriving with little advance warning, he would spend hours talking with subordinates and the population.

Templer was thus able to assess local commanders personally. He also sent four of his staff officers to tour the country and conduct similar assessments. Through his formidable powers of intuition, Templer quickly identified weak leaders and relieved them without hesitation. He was somewhat more delicate in firing civil servants, as the Malayan civil service was unaccustomed to close scrutiny or relief for poor performance. Initially, Templer fired only the two most egregious examples of poor leadership in the civil service— one whom he called “an awfully nice fellow but quite gaga,” the other whom he characterized as “absolutely burnt out and useless, though a nice chap.”

In finding replacements for those he sacked, Templer demonstrated exceptional perseverance and ingenuity. London did not act on his pleas for more Chinese-speaking civil servants, so Templer engaged an energetic former missionary to locate Chinese-speaking missionaries and convince them to work in Malaya. He also chose the most promising two dozen Malayan cadets and sent them to Sandhurst for training.

Templer enlarged the Special Branch of the police and stocked it with first-rate officers recruited from throughout the empire, emphasizing the qualities of initiative and creativity. As a result, intelligence collection on the insurgents surged. But recognizing the limited depth of the police officer pool and the futility of fielding forces without adequate leadership, Templer cut the other police elements from 71,000 to 54,000.

Although Templer sought to recruit more ethnic Chinese into the Home Guard, he filled most of the leadership slots with British and Australian officers, due to the past incompetence and disloyalty of many Chinese officers. In September 1952, Templer notified London, “The Home Guard is not progressing as fast as I would wish or had hoped. This is almost entirely due to the lack of expatriate officers (about which I sent you an urgent telegram).…We will never get any sense into the thing until we get the British and Australian officers for whom we have been striving so long.” Once British and Australian officers began arriving, Home Guard performance improved substantially, and in the following year, the Home Guard assumed all security responsibilities in 150 of the 500 principal relocation sites.

Over and above his administrative skills and remarkable energy, Templer proved a charismatic and inspirational leader. He often delivered effective motivational speeches, energizing counterinsurgents of all nationalities and occupations. Templer’s vigorous spirit rubbed off on subordinate commanders, and they in turn energized the soldiers, policemen and civil servants operating in the countryside. After hearing Templer speak, one British official remarked, “The impact was electrifying. Templer combined high-powered vitality and a slightly Machiavellian expression with ruthless determination and an infectious sense of humor.” Templer endeared himself to those under his command by paying personal attention to them and soliciting their opinions. A young British officer described him as “dynamic, enthusiastic, energetic and, for someone in my position, a hero, who was always open to ideas from junior officers like myself.”

On his frequent visits to villages, Templer talked with ordinary citizens in shops and alleys and spoke to the assembled population about the tasks ahead. These appearances usually had a galvanizing effect on the people, although there was the occasional misstep: At one village where the guerrillas had recently conducted an effective ambush, Templer told a gathering of villagers, “You’re a bunch of bastards!” which the interpreter translated as, “His excellency informs you that he knows that none of your mothers and fathers were married when you were born.” Templer continued, “You may be bastards, but you’ll find out that I can be a bigger one.” The interpreter conveyed this statement to the befuddled villagers as, “His excellency does admit, however, that his father was also not married to his mother.”

Templer also made a point of visiting Malaya’s vital rubber plantations and tin mines, where much of the ethnic Chinese population lived and worked. He pushed mine and plantation managers to provide good working conditions and wages to defuse worker discontent, while exhorting laborers to reject communist calls for strikes. One plantation owner commented after hearing Templer, “Here was a man at least who knew what he wanted to do and how to do it.”

Templer also took his message into the capital city of Kuala Lumpur, which was physically and psychologically removed from the fighting in the countryside. The city’s residents, particularly the Europeans, seemed unconcerned about the insurgency and were keeping themselves busy with business and pleasure. Upbraiding the capital’s high society at the Rotary Club in April 1952, Templer exclaimed, “You see today how the communists work.…They seldom go to the races. They seldom go to dinner parties or cocktail parties. And they don’t play golf!” A few weeks later, he reminded the chamber of commerce that the Europeans in Malaya had an obligation to participate in the community and spend time in volunteer activities; he published a list of organizations that needed volunteers, and as a result of his exhortations, large numbers of Europeans did volunteer their time.

The one audience with which Templer did not regularly triumph was the media. Although he did not impose censorship, he berated local newspaper editors for printing items he considered detrimental to the cause. In response, journalists, including some who had initially praised him, wrote more negative stories on the war and his performance.

With improved intelligence and increased security in populous areas, the government was able to obtain more and better information, which the upgraded security forces used to capture thousands of insurgents. Intelligence was not plentiful enough, however, to eliminate the need for offensive patrolling in the jungle; in 1954 the average soldier was still spending 1,000 hours on patrol before encountering the enemy. The effectiveness of jungle patrolling, therefore, usually came down to the tactical proficiency and perseverance of small-unit leaders—a point succinctly stated in Templer’s operations manual: “The success or failure of these operations therefore depends on the standard of junior leaders.…The type of junior leader required is a mentally tough, self-reliant hunter, determined to close with and kill the CT [communist terrorists].”

The presence of capable security forces in the villages made it harder for the insurgents to recruit, gather intelligence and collect food. The police and civil servants also devised innovative methods for limiting the insurgents’ access to food, which was especially important, as guerrillas in the jungle relied on food from the villages. For example, the counterinsurgents organized the cooking of rice at central kitchens and banned the sale of uncooked rice, ensuring that rice would spoil before it could be transported deep into the jungle. As another means of compelling prompt consumption, they required village shops to puncture cans of food at the time of purchase.

The impacts of all these steps? When the communist party leaders ordered the Malayan guerrillas to intensify offensive operations in late 1952 to counteract Templer’s gains, the guerrillas could not comply because of dwindling troop numbers and food supplies. The insurgency’s woes multiplied in 1953 and 1954. Whereas insurgent strikes had averaged more than 500 per month when Templer arrived, they sank below 100 before he departed in the middle of 1954. Insurgent casualties exceeded insurgent recruits in 1952 for the first time, and at Templer’s exit the insurgents had lost more than half their total strength. Some fighting did stretch into the post-Templer years, but by then the insurgents were essentially beaten and would never again pose a serious threat to Malaya’s government. The colony achieved its independence in 1957.

As happens from time to time in the history of counterinsurgency, the installation of one effective leader had turned a quagmire into a path to victory. It is a lesson worth remembering.


For further reading, Mark Moyar recommends: Suppressing Insurgency, by John Coates, and Hearts and Minds in Guerrilla Warfare, by Richard Stubbs.

Originally published in the September 2010 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here