Military history



Briggs, Templer, and the Malayan Emergency, 1948–1960

ON A TYPICALLY torrid tropical afternoon on February 7, 1952, a “pale, wiry, and intense”127 man stepped off a Royal Air Force aircraft onto the tarmac of Kuala Lumpur’s primitive airport. General Sir Gerald Templer was dressed in a debonair tropical suit, a large handkerchief protruding from his breast pocket. With his thin mustache and slicked-back hair, he bore more than a passing resemblance to the actor David Niven, a fellow Sandhurst graduate and World War II veteran. But although Niven had left Hollywood to compile a distinguished wartime record, his military achievements paled by comparison with those of the older man, who had also fought in World War I. Templer had seen action from the Somme to Dunkirk and Anzio. In the interwar years he had competed in the Olympics as a hurdler and won a competition as the British army’s top bayonet fighter.

His career had almost ended, along with his life, in 1944 when he was a division commander in Italy. While driving in a jeep, Templer passed an army truck at the precise moment when it hit a landmine. It was later said that he had nearly been killed by a flying piano that had been in the back of the truck. He survived but his back was broken. “Only general ever wounded by a piano,” he joked, although the culprit actually appears to have been one of the truck’s wheels.

That terrible accident turned out to be a stroke of fortune in disguise, for it meant that Templer had to give up battlefield command. He wound up working first at SOE in London, then as director of civil affairs and military government in the British zone of occupation in Germany, where he became famous, or more rightly infamous, for sacking Konrad Adenauer, future chancellor of West Germany, as mayor of Cologne. (He thought Adenauer too old and indolent.) This was followed by a stint as director of military intelligence in London.

These experiences in subversion, intelligence, and civil administration—along with his interwar stint in Palestine fighting the Arab Revolt, which taught him “the mind and method of the guerrilla”—turned out to be better preparation than a normal army career for the assignment he had now been given. Templer had been appointed high commissioner and director of operations in Malaya, combining the highest civil and military offices, as Lyautey had done in Morocco. Those extraordinary powers had been granted him by Prime Minister Winston Churchill because of the dire situation in Malaya.128

As in other countries that had been occupied by Japan, Malaya had fielded a guerrilla army with covert Allied support, in this case from the SOE’s Force 136. After the war the Communist-dominated Malayan People’s Anti-Japanese Army was reborn as the Malayan Races Liberation Army. It turned to fighting the returning British, in many cases using the same jungle camps and the same weapons they had employed against the Japanese. In 1948, following the murder of three British planters, the government declared a state of emergency that suspended civil laws and gave the police and army wide-ranging powers of search, arrest, and detention. (Suspects could be detained for up to two years without trial.)129

In spite of increasing pressure, the guerrillas appeared to be gaining strength under the leadership of Chin Peng, the twenty-six-year-old son of a Chinese bicycle-shop owner who had taken over the MRLA after the preceding secretary general, an informer for both the Japanese and the British, had absconded with the party treasury in 1947. Chin Peng was a “quiet character with incisive brain and unusual ability,”130 in the opinion of one SOE officer who had worked with him—the self-contained antithesis of such outgoing, larger-than-life guerrilla chiefs as Michael Collins or Giuseppe Garibaldi. He had learned guerrilla warfare from the British themselves, and for his wartime work he had been awarded an Order of the British Empire. Like most Asian communists, he had also made a careful study of Mao Zedong’s works, although in practice he proved to be hardly Mao’s equal as a strategist.

The Communist Terrorists, as the British liked to label them, soon numbered more than 5,000 fighters aided by a larger number of part-time helpers in the Min Yuen (“People’s Organization”). The insurgents drew much of their strength from Malaya’s 2 million Chinese residents; they had few backers among the rest of the population of 5.1 million, composed of 2.5 million Malays, 500,000 Indians, and 10,000 Europeans.131 Much as the Communist insurgents in Vietnam would target French plantations as well as French security forces, so too Malaya’s insurgents would emerge from the jungle to carry out a reign of terror not only against British security forces but also against the economic underpinning of the country—rubber plantations and tin mines, which were managed by Europeans and worked by Chinese and Indians. British planters got used to having their bungalows fired on every night. Trains were derailed, rubber trees slashed, factories set afire. This reign of terror was designed to drive the Europeans out of the country, leaving the insurgents a free hand. By 1952 the Communists had killed 3,000 people and tied down 30,000 Commonwealth troops and 60,000 police officers.132

Their greatest triumph came on October 5, 1951, when thirty-six guerrillas set up an ambush along a steep roadway sixty miles north of Kuala Lumpur. At 1:15 p.m., they spotted a Land Rover carrying half a dozen policemen followed by a Rolls-Royce limousine flying the Union Jack. The Communists let loose a volley of rifle and machine-gun fire that hit almost every occupant of the Land Rover and wounded the driver of the Rolls. The back door of the limousine opened and an Englishman got out. He was cut down within a few yards. Thus did the guerrillas unwittingly kill Sir Henry Gurney, the senior representative of Her Majesty’s Government in Malaya.133

It would later become clear that this was the high-water mark of the insurgency and that it was already beginning to subside. But this was not at all obvious to Gerald Templer on his arrival four months later as he drove from the airport to King’s House, the official residence of the high commissioner, in a car still scarred with the bullet holes from the ambush that had killed his predecessor. The mood in Kuala Lumpur was grim. “We were on the way to losing control of the country, and soon,” wrote the British colonial secretary, Oliver Lyttelton, while a British adviser spoke of a “general feeling of hopelessness.”134 The loss of Malaya, they knew, would be not only an economic blow to Britain (Malaya was the world’s biggest exporter of natural rubber) but also a psychological blow—it would be seen as a victory for international communism and a defeat for the Free World.

FIELD MARSHAL BERNARD Law Montgomery, Templer’s mentor and a fellow Ulsterman, had penned a pithy note to Lyttelton advising that victory in Malaya required two things: “We must have a plan. Secondly we must have a man. When we have a plan and a man, we shall succeed: not otherwise.” (“I may, perhaps without undue conceit, say that this had occurred to me,” Lyttelton noted drily.) After his first choice withdrew from consideration, Monty pushed Templer as the man who could “deliver the goods.”135 What he did not seem to realize was that the plan that Malaya needed was already in existence.

Its author was Lieutenant General Sir Harold Briggs, a career Indian Army officer who had distinguished himself in the Burma campaign during World War II—a source of jungle-fighting experience for the British that was to prove invaluable in Malaya, which was four-fifths jungle.136 Briggs had been called out of retirement in 1950 to become director of operations coordinating military and police activity in Malaya. In that capacity he produced what became known as the Briggs Plan: the subsequent blueprint of victory. It included multiple steps, from hiring more Special Branch inspectors and better coordinating police-military operations to clearing roads in isolated areas and deporting captured insurgents to China. Its centerpiece was the resettlement of Chinese squatters, an updated version of the “reconcentration” policies that had been employed in conflicts as varied as the American Indian Wars, the Cuban and Filipino insurrections, and the Boer War—and that was also to be employed in the decade ahead in Kenya, Algeria, and South Vietnam.

Between 400,000 and 600,000 squatters (there was no accurate count)137 lived in shanty towns on the edge of the jungle, scraping out a meager living with farming and other jobs. They did not enjoy title to their lands, and they were alienated from the mainstream of Malay society. This made them a prime breeding ground for the insurgency. The Briggs Plan began the process of building five hundred New Villages where, protected by armed guards, perimeter lighting, and barbed wire, the squatters could be separated from the guerrillas.138 Security was to be provided in the first instance by 50,000 Chinese Home Guards.139 Nobody could enter or leave a New Village without an identity card, and curfew was strictly enforced. Workers were searched leaving the village for work in the morning to ensure that they were not smuggling out any rice to feed the Communists. The Briggs Plan instituted draconian penalties for anyone helping the guerrillas, “making the death penalty mandatory for convicted bandit food agents and money collectors.”140

The resettlement plan actually proved popular in the end because the Chinese were provided title to their lands, electricity, clean drinking water, schools, and clinics. This stood in stark contrast to ill-fated French attempts to implement a similar policy in Algeria. By 1959 over a million Muslim villagers had been moved into fortified “regroupment camps,” which, like the British concentration camps in South Africa six decades earlier, lacked basic amenities, including food, sanitation facilities, and medicine, and therefore became breeding grounds of disease and discontentment.141The New Villages were better run, but their inhabitants were hardly there by choice—they were kept inside at gunpoint.

With his focus on resettlement, Briggs deemphasized the sort of fruitless “jungle bashing” on which the army had wasted valuable resources in the war’s early years. Too many brigade commanders newly arrived from Europe and, in the words of one officer, “nostalgic for World War II”142would send their troops thrashing through the dense vegetation only to discover nothing but empty guerrilla camps. “You can’t deal with a plague of mosquitoes by swatting each individual insect,” Briggs said. “You find and disinfect their breeding grounds. Then the mosquitoes are finished.”143

There would still be operations to rout guerrillas in their jungle redoubts undertaken primarily by units such as the Special Air Service, commanded by the Chindit veteran “Mad Mike” Calvert, which were specially trained for long-range penetration and assisted by Dyak headhunters imported from Borneo to serve as trackers. Briggs, however, switched the bulk of his resources to “breaking the popular support for the rising,”144 the foundation of any successful counterinsurgency strategy. As Robert Thompson, a Malayan civil servant and another veteran of the Chindits, put it, “The chief emphasis . . . must be on ‘clear-and-hold’ operations as opposed to ‘search-and-clear’ operations (or sweeps).”145

This was to prove an immensely effective strategy, but Briggs left Malaya at the end of 1951 sick, bitter, and disillusioned after eighteen months’ service. He had been frustrated that he had been limited to a coordinator’s role with limited authority over the security forces and the civilian officials who worked with the native rulers of the nine states that made up the Federation of Malaya.

TEMPLER WAS TO get the powers that Briggs lacked, and he was to make full use of them. He had a mischievous, fun-loving side, but normally it was well hidden. Mostly he came across as imperious, demanding, driven—not someone who suffered fools gladly. During the desperate fighting of the 1944 Battle of Anzio, where he was a division commander, he had been nicknamed the Scalded Cat. He brought the same “electrifying” impact to Malaya, where he was appalled by the indolent attitude of many bureaucrats and planters—“chairbound . . . dunderheads,” one correspondent called them, while the colonial secretary acerbically noted that many were “varnished with port and pickled with gin.”146

When called upon to deliver a speech at an exclusive Kuala Lumpur club, Templer berated his privileged listeners, telling them that Communists “seldom go to the races. They seldom go to dinner parties or cocktail parties. And they don’t play golf!” He threatened to close down another club until it admitted “natives.”147

Templer’s “brusque” directives, criticisms, and questions, delivered in a “clipped harsh voice,” offended some; he was not afraid to tell an official who had earned his ire that he was a “stinker” or “no bloody good.” But most were impressed by his “dynamic and sometimes abrasive personality.” One district officer came away from a meeting “feeling like an electric torch which has just been filled with new batteries.”148

As he explained in a letter to the colonial secretary, Templer did his best to drive bureaucrats “out of their offices and make them talk about the Emergency with the people on the ground, in whose head ultimately lies the solution.”149 Taking his own advice, he made a habit of roaming the country in an armored car, giving scant advance notice of his arrival to military units or villages, so they could not tidy up things. When he saw things that needed correcting, as he frequently did, he issued memoranda typed in red with a deadline for action. These “red minutes” delivered by dispatch riders were an echo of Winston Churchill’s wartime memos marked “Action this day”—and just as effective in galvanizing a hidebound bureaucracy.

Templer secured his place in counterinsurgency history with his emphasis on political, rather than kinetic, warfare. “The shooting side of the business is only 25% of the trouble,” he often said, “and the other 75% lies in getting the people of this country behind us.”150 Even more famously, he declared, “The answer lies not in pouring more troops into the jungle, but in the hearts and minds of the people.”151 This phrase echoed, no doubt inadvertently, lines written in 1776 by the British general Sir Henry Clinton (“gain the hearts and subdue the minds of America”) and by John Adams in 1818 (“The Revolution was in the minds and hearts of the people”).152 Not until Templer used it, however, did “hearts and minds” turn into a byword and later a cliché. (That “nauseating phrase,” as Templer called it in 1968, was to become a particular favorite of Lyndon Johnson’s.)153

It is an injunction that has often been misunderstood to mean focusing purely on social, political, and economic efforts to win over the populace. Like Hubert Lyautey, William Howard Taft, David Petraeus and other exemplars of the “population-centric” school of counterinsurgency, Templer did believe in civic action. He encouraged the army to renovate schools, open hospitals to civilians, and generally help the populace. More importantly, to counter Communist appeals, he repeatedly emphasized to Malayans that they would be granted independence “in due course.”154 And, following the ancient Roman example, he pushed to extend Malayan citizenship to more than a million Indians and Chinese, thus giving them a stake in their adopted country.

But winning “hearts and minds” also involved coercive measures such as resettling the squatters—a process begun by Briggs and completed by Templer—which would be unthinkable for twenty-first-century British or American counterinsurgents. Robert Thompson, the former Chindit who worked closely with Briggs and Templer, noted that warfare was not a popularity contest: “What the peasant wants to know is: Does the government mean to win the war? Because if not, he will have to support the insurgent.” “The government,” he added, “must show that it is not only determined, but prepared, to be ruthless.”155

TEMPLER SHOWED THE requisite ruthlessness. In April 1952, after a British party was ambushed and twelve men killed, he arrived to demand “with a savage anger” that the residents of the nearby village of Tanjong Malim name the attackers. When they refused, he imposed a twenty-two-hour curfew and cut the rice ration in half. Forms were then circulated to all households so they could inform on the guerrillas anonymously. This led to thirty-eight arrests and, thirteen days later, to the lifting of the restrictions. Yet Templer took no joy in such tough measures, which reeked of “collective punishment” and aroused Parliament’s ire. Eventually he abolished them.156

He also cracked down on the sorts of abuses that had been common in the early days of the emergency when British troops, many of them raw, frightened conscripts, had burned whole villages in retaliation for attacks and indiscriminately locked up and abused suspects: 200,000 people were held for less than a month, 25,000 for more than a month. On one occasion in 1948 Tommies had even massacred 24 Chinese civilians.157

Templer realized that such blunderbuss tactics only drove more recruits into the Communist camp. He took a more measured approach in which small units would act on the basis of good intelligence. “My absolute top priority,” he declared shortly after arriving, “is to get the intelligence machine right.”158 The federal police’s Special Branch was given lead responsibility for this task and expanded from two officers to more than two hundred.159 Its detectives scored notable successes by interrogating Surrendered Enemy Personnel and by intercepting Communist couriers—Chin Peng’s chief method of communicating with his forces. Templer pressed troops to capture rather than kill insurgents “because of the information we can suck out of them.”160 Whereas in Indochina and Algeria torture was routine, here even high-level suspects were not tortured. Troops were warned, “Confessions must not . . . be obtained by any inducement, threat, or promise.”161

Templer did not neglect the need for offensive action. He often told security personnel, “Get out and kill those bastards—communist terrorists.”162 To help accomplish this task, he sent troops to a Jungle Warfare School and issued a tactical handbook titled The Conduct of Anti-Terrorist Operations in Malaya, which for the first time introduced a common operational approach.

One of the most important weapons in his arsenal was psychological warfare, which was employed “to cause general demoralization” in Communist ranks.163 British aircraft dropped millions of leaflets offering guerrillas a safe-conduct pass to surrender. Other aircraft flew low over the jungle to broadcast appeals to give up. These “voice aircraft” were especially effective (and spooky) when they named individual guerrillas down below. Rewards were offered for insurgents “dead or alive,” but higher sums were available if alive.164

The biggest inducement for surrender was that the guerrillas could not sustain themselves in the jungle. In some New Villages all rice was cooked communally in well-guarded kitchens, and individual possession of the precious grain was prohibited. To keep themselves fed the Communists began planting gardens in the jungle. Whenever these were discovered, they were destroyed, either by herbicide-spraying aircraft or by troops who would uproot and burn the crops.165 Ching Peng recalled, “Our situation became so desperate at one point that I even looked into the possibility of making the rubber seed edible.” This didn’t pan out: rubber seeds contain a poisonous toxin that cannot be removed.166 Thus Templer, showing that he could act ruthlessly when he felt the need to do so, literally starved the Communists into submission, much as the U.S. Army had once done to the Indians. By the time they gave up, most insurgents were a sorry sight, with, in the words of a British brigadier, “shaggy hair, emaciated countenance, ragged khaki uniform, and eyes like those of a hunted rat.”167

As more Communists came in (eventually 3,982 surrendered or were captured),168 Templer decided to designate certain areas as “white,” meaning pacified. This involved the lifting of emergency regulations, including the curfew and food controls, thus providing an inducement for areas that were still “black” to fall in behind the government. By the time that Templer left Malaya on May 31, 1954, roughly a third of the country was “white” and the back of the insurgency had been broken. Significantly Templer and his wife drove to the airport in an open touring car.

TEMPLER WAS ON his way to promotion to field marshal and a new job as chief of the Imperial General Staff. The country he left behind, eventually to be renamed Malaysia, was on its way to independence in 1957 with a pro-Western government led by Tunku Abdul Rahman. A British officer summed up Templer’s accomplishment by noting that during his two years “two-thirds of the guerrillas were wiped out, the terrorist incident rate fell from 500 a month to less than 100, and the casualty rate went from 200 to less than 40.”169 No other counterinsurgency campaign waged abroad by a Western power in the postwar era was as successful.

Warning against overconfidence and mindful of the difficulty of measuring success in a counterinsurgency, Templer said in 1953, “I’ll shoot the bastard who says this Emergency is over.”170 No one did say so, at least not officially, until 1960, when there were no casualties inflicted by the insurgents. That year the state of emergency was lifted. A few hundred of Chin Peng’s die-hard followers would hold out in the jungles of neighboring Thailand until the signing of a peace treaty in 1989, but they would never seriously threaten Malaysia’s stability again.

IN EXAMINING WHY the British were successful in Malaya while the French failed in nearby Indochina, it must be noted that the former was a peninsula bordering a friendly country, Thailand, whereas the latter had a long land border with the decidedly unfriendly People’s Republic of China. Isolating the insurgents from outside support is a critical part of any counterinsurgency, and that was much easier to achieve in Malaya than in Indochina. Chin Peng did not receive any significant aid from China or Russia, and his fighters never had any heavy weapons. Even small-arms ammunition was in short supply.171

The British were also helped by the fact that the rebellion was always limited to the Chinese, who made up 40 percent of the population. If the Communists had shown more skill in appealing to the Malay majority, they would have been much harder to defeat. But the Malays, mostly conservative Muslim farmers, remained loyal to their hereditary sultans, who were allied with the British.

In addition the British war effort benefited from a stroke of serendipity: the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950 caused a worldwide rise in commodity prices, including that of the tin and rubber produced in Malaya. The resulting economic boom allowed lavish spending on social services and provided plenty of good-paying jobs, which helped dispel the lure of the guerrillas.

Finally the British benefited from the enlightened generalship of Harold Briggs and Gerald Templer, who used the appropriate degree of force while rejecting the tougher but ultimately self-defeating tactics employed by French commanders in Indochina and Algeria.

For all these reasons, the British war in Malaya was far less costly, and far more successful, than the French and American efforts in Vietnam. Over twelve years the emergency cost the lives of 3,283 civilians, 1,865 security personnel, and 6,698 Communists.172

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