A Modern Cromwell

Sir Gerald Templer and his assistant, Major Lord Wynford inspecting the members of Kinta Valley Home Guard (KVHG) in Perak, c. 1952.

A Plan and a Man

By October 1951, the Malayan Communist Party Central Executive Committee met to review the war to date. Over the past year guerrillas had staged some 6,100 incidents while inflicting the highest record of losses on civilians and security forces. The Central Executive Committee did not have precise figures. What they did know was that they had massed their fighters to the greatest possible extent in an effort to obtain important results. Company-sized units of 100 to 300 men had attacked remote police stations, European business offices, and mining installations. The goal was to overpower the regular and irregular police guards, capture weapons and ammunition, and demoralize the native constabulary. These assaults had been costly and seldom succeeded. The Central Executive Committee did not realize that its fighters had become demoralized, with many shying away from contact with the British.

The second major Communist objective was the New Villages. Communist agents had infiltrated squatter communities to persuade the people to resist relocation. Guerrillas ambushed truck convoys conveying the squatters to the New Villages. They fired into newly settled villages in hopes of stampeding the inhabitants. In spite of making the strongest possible effort, the Communists had failed to prevent the expansion of the New Villages.

During its October 1951 review, the leadership concluded that while it could foment terror, depredations against the people—slashing rubber trees, burning workers’ huts, sabotaging public utilities, ambushing Red Cross convoys, derailing trains, shooting up New Villages, killing for identity cards—merely increased the general population’s misery. The committee decided that these tactics had been a mistake since they alienated the very people they most needed to support the insurgency. The MCP leadership decreed that henceforth the masses were to be courted. The sole legitimate targets for terrorist operations were the British and their “running dogs.”

The Executive Committee resolved that in order to wage a protracted struggle, the formed guerrilla units had to break contact with the security forces and withdraw deeper into the jungle to rest and refit. Couriers set out on foot to disseminate this decision to all guerrilla units. The jungle was no longer a completely safe haven. Fear of ambush and the need to dodge British patrols caused the couriers to move cautiously from one jungle post office to the next. Consequently, months passed before many guerrilla leaders received the new orders.

At the time no one realized the enormous significance of the committee’s decision. The British had no knowledge of this strategic shift for almost a year. Only then were intelligence officers able to link prisoner interrogations with captured documents to discover that there had been a fundamental shift and that the insurgents had lost their revolutionary momentum. The shift most dramatically changed the status of the village police posts. For the previous three and a half years, policemen had confronted a mortal threat of massed attack by overwhelming numbers. Henceforth, attacks came from small bands of twenty to thirty and were typically only nuisance raids. Relieved of their fear of annihilation, the village police could focus on providing security and restoring law and order.

Yet it was the inherent nature of a counterinsurgency that the British were unable to assess accurately its progress until after the fact. The British did not perceive that the tide was turning. They did not know Communist strength had declined to perhaps 500 hard-core guerrillas supported by another 4,000 fighters of indifferent morale. They did not know that the year 1951 would prove the high-water mark of the insurgency.

The Return of Winston Churchill

Great Britain’s October election of 1951 brought a new Conservative government led by a revived Winston Churchill. Churchill returned to office to find his country still struggling from its exertions during World War II. Food stocks were as depleted as they had been at the height of the U-boat menace in 1941. Strict food rationing remained in place. Prosperity seemed a distant mirage. The Malayan Emergency was costing the nation’s pinched economy half a million dollars per day. In Asia, some 800,000 United Nations soldiers including a Commonwealth Division were challenging Communism in Korea. More than 100,000 French troops were fighting the Viet Minh in Indochina. Although Churchill supported both fights, he believed that the fate of the entire Far East truly depended on Malaya. The prime minister requested a complete report on Malaya, and its contents depressed him. Committees charged with winning the war were spending most of their time bickering. The police force was riven with factions. Worst of all, in Churchill’s view, no one seemed to sense the urgency of the problem. He issued orders to Secretary of State Oliver Lyttelton—“The rot has got to be stopped”—and sent him to Singapore.

Lyttelton arrived in Malaya before Christmas 1951. His initial survey convinced him that the British were on the verge of losing Malaya. On his last night at King’s House he found the regular staff absent, replaced by police officers. They sheepishly reported that the Chinese butler who heretofore had served the secretary his after-dinner coffee had been removed from his position because he was a Communist agent.

Lyttelton described the essential conundrum facing a counterinsurgency: “You cannot win the war without the help of the population, and you cannot get the support of the population without at least beginning to win the war.” The antagonism between the Malay majority and the Chinese minority seemed overwhelming. A Malay political delegation met with Lyttelton to propose a compromise solution: accept the existing situation and let Malaya be granted in dependence forthwith under British administration.

This proposal was immensely attractive. It addressed the prime Malay concern about power sharing with the Malayan Chinese by acknowledging that the Malays would remain politically dominant. If the British accepted it would motivate Malays to put forth far more effort in the war. It meant the war would come to an end soon and Commonwealth troops could escape what appeared to be a jungle quagmire. But in the minds of Lyttelton and Churchill the proposal violated basic British values, not the least of which was the preservation of a disintegrating empire, and smacked of declaring victory and going home. Consequently they rejected it.

Instead Lyttelton recommended a colossal Organizational change: the installation of a supreme warlord in charge of both military and civil affairs. As Lyttelton pondered candidates he briefly considered Britain’s most famous warrior, Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery. He correctly suspected that the immensely proud Montgomery would not want to risk his reputation in Malaya’s jungles. However, Montgomery did send a Lyttelton a brief note of advice: “Dear Lyttelton, Malaya. We must have a plan. Secondly, we must have a man. When we have a plan and a man, we shall succeed; not otherwise.” If the field marshal’s advice was rather obvious—Lyttelton later wrote with British understatement that “this had occurred to me”—it still made the solid point that heretofore British efforts had yet to marry leadership and strategic execution.3 That was about to change.

The Rise of Sir Gerald Templer

Lyttelton’s choice for warlord was General Sir Gerald Templer. Templer arrived in Malaya in February 1952 to assume an exceptional posting as both the high commissioner and operational commander of the military. Not since Oliver Cromwell had Britain invested a soldier with this combination of military and political power. But Templer was an exceptional man. He had served in the trenches of France during World War I, competed on the 1924 British Olympic hurdles team, won the army’s bayonet fighting championship, earned the prestigious Distinguished Service Order in Palestine, and risen to corps command during World War II’s Anzio campaign. During the Allied occupation of Germany he was director of military government and later became the director of intelligence at the War Office. His combination of combat and civil leadership coupled with an intelligence background well prepared Templer to meet a novel challenge.

Templer coined the phrase “winning hearts and minds” to describe the foundation of a counterinsurgency strategy.4 He tackled the difficult problem of constructing a political system that would unite Malaya’s many ethnic groups into a stable structure. He was very much a man of action, disdaining all theoretical constructs. He saw that the existing bureaucracy, with its numerous committees and duplication of authority on the state and district levels, was failing because the civilians, policemen, and soldiers could not agree. He told one such committee, “My advice is for you to thrash out your problems over a bottle of whiskey in the evenings. If you can’t agree I don’t want to know why. I’ll sack the lot of you and bring in three new chaps.”

Templer’s political goal was a united nation of Malaya with “a common form of citizenship for all who regard the Federation or any part of it as their real home and the object of their loyalty.” With Templer’s encouragement, in January 1952 the United Malay National Organization and the Malayan Chinese Association cooperated to form the Alliance Party. The Alliance Party contested the capital’s municipal elections and won nine of eleven seats, thereby vaulting itself into national prominence. Templer pledged that legislative elections would be the first step toward independence.

The issue of what would happen after in dependence haunted some Europeans and many Malayans. One experienced reporter warned, “Unless a united Malayan nation is achieved before the British government hands self-government to the country a much more terrible Emergency of racial strife may break out.” Templer addressed this problem head-on. In September 1952 all aliens born in Malaya, including most notably 1.2 million Chinese, received full citizenship. Later Templer signed a decree requiring every New Village to have a school where the language of instruction was Malayan. Newly constructed primary schools in other towns and villages had the same requirement. The ability to speak Malayan was intended to cement future generations to a united Malaya while reassuring the current majority Malay population. Templer also explicitly addressed the question of land tenure when he said that the inhabitants of the New Villages needed to own the land where they lived. By deft political manipulation, Templer cleverly changed the calculus of battle. By hitching the forces of nationalism to an emerging democratic Malay state, the British undercut an insurgency against colonial oppressors and replaced it with a competition for the future of an in dependent nation.

Encased in this velvet glove was an iron hand. Ten days after describing his vision for a united Malaya, a particularly bloody guerrilla ambush brought Templer to the town of Tanjong Malim, fifty-five miles north of Kuala Lumpur. The town had a bad reputation for violence, with almost forty incidents in the past three months. Recently seven Gordon Highlanders had died in an ambush and fifteen civilians and policemen had been murdered. Now for the sixth time guerrillas had cut a water pipeline outside of town. This time they remained on the scene to lure the repair crew and its police escort into a carefully prepared killing zone. Among the killed were a highly respected district administrator—the celebrated Michael Codner, who had earned a Military Cross for his role in the famous “Wooden Horse” escape from a German prison camp during World War II—the area executive engineer of public works, and seven policemen. Once again no townsperson admitted hearing, seeing, or knowing anything about the ambush.

Templer ordered community leaders to assemble and then during an hour-long rant charged them with “cowardly silence.” He said that he would install a new town administration backed with more troops. When some nearby listeners nodded approval, Templer lashed out: “Don’t nod your heads, I haven’t started yet.” He proceeded to impose a twenty-two-hour-a-day curfew, during which time no one was to leave their homes. No one was to leave town at any time. Templer closed the schools and bus service and reduced the rice ration by 40 percent.

How long these measures remained in place would depend upon the townspeople. Ten days later each household received a confidential questionnaire in which they were supposed to denounce any known Communists. With a fine sense of the theatrical, Templer had the completed questionnaires deposited in a sealed box, brought to the capital by selected community leaders, and then opened the letters himself. He read them, made notes, and then destroyed the originals to preserve confidentiality. He sent the village notables home with instructions to tell the people how the letters had been handled. After processing the questionnaires, authorities made some minor arrests and Templer gradually lifted the restrictions. From a tactical standpoint, Templer’s angry retaliation failed; the people arrested were Communist supporters or sympathizers, not members of the guerrilla band who actually had ambushed the repair crew. Moreover, given the limited extent of literacy in the town, the use of written questionnaires was not the best way to obtain responses. But strategically Templer had made his point: a new authority was on the scene and was prepared for stern action when called for.

Because of Codner’s hero status, the incident received widespread publicity. Templer’s notion of collective punishment produced a storm of protest from British and international media. Among many, the Manchester Guardian labeled his behavior “odious.” Templer cared not. His first months in Malaya had an electric political and morale-boosting impact: “he was not only there, but was most certainly seen to be there.”

A Winning Strategy

By British standards, Templer commanded a sizable force including half of the line regiments in the entire British army, all its Gurkha battalions, and a variety of regiments from the remnants of the far-flung empire, including the King’s African Rifles and the Fijian Regiment. He intended to wield them differently, moving away from large sweeps and instead concentrating on keeping units in one area long enough so they could learn the local terrain. Templer also thought that various British units had acquired valuable experience in jungle fighting and that this knowledge needed to be collected and disseminated in a systematic way. The result was a booklet entitled “The Conduct of Anti-Terrorist Operations in Malaya.” Based on the syllabus of the Jungle Warfare Training Centre, it was written in just two weeks. It was a practical how-to compendium describing techniques for patrolling, conducting searches, setting ambushes, and acquiring intelligence. Printed in a size that fit into a jungle uniform pocket, “The Conduct of Anti-Terrorist Operations in Malaya,” inevitably given the acronym ATOM, served as a soldier’s bible. Templer inscribed his own copy with this notation: “It is largely as a result of the publication of this handbook . . . that we got militant communism in Malaya by the throat.”

The improvement in jungle tactics coincided with the insight that the vast, apparently impenetrable jungle actually held a limited network of trails and that the enemy had no choice but to use them. Communist couriers, food requisition parties, and organized units carrying out operations had to traverse these trails some time or another. Rather than noisily bashing about the jungle on useless large-scale sweeps, the British tactic of choice became the setting of an ambush overlooking a trail, followed by a patient waiting period. Platoons operated along the jungle edge for ten to twenty days at a time. They spent most of their time watching and listening.

For a superior officer, the notion of passively waiting for the enemy to appear flew in the face of conventional training. For the soldiers waiting silently hour after hour trying to ignore the leeches, mosquitoes, sleep-inducing heat and humidity, and fatigue, it was not pleasant. A British officer wrote, “I had grown used to the jungle during the war in Burma, but there we were always in large parties and in touch either by sound or wireless with the units to our left and right. Also we always had some idea of where the enemy was. Here we were just a little party of ten men, completely isolated, and the enemy was God knows where. He might be behind the next bush, or the one beyond that, or he might be a hundred miles away. We never knew.”

Most of the time no one passed the ambush site. Yet statistics revealed that on average a soldier on patrol encountered an insurgent once every 1,000 hours. The same soldier waiting patiently in ambush saw an insurgent once every 300 hours. Typically, a contact did not occur until after the ambushers had been in position for more than twenty-four hours. An officer tabulated his accomplishments at the end of his tour. He had spent 115 days in the jungle: “I was with my company when we shot and killed a terrorist. I set an ambush with a section of my platoon which shot and killed a terrorist. My platoon shot and killed a terrorist in an ambush while I was on leave. A company operation in which I took part resulted in four terrorists surrendering. I fired at, but missed, a terrorist who was running away from a camp which we were attacking.” Based on conversations with fellow officers, he concluded that he had experienced a fairly active tour of duty.

Jungle ambush was not comfortable, it was not glorious, but in this war it was the most effective purely military tactic.

Food Denial

The Malayan jungle did not produce enough food to sustain the guerrillas. They needed to obtain sustenance from sympathizers living outside the jungle to survive. The British knew this and conceived a strict food denial program (what became known as Operation Starvation) to starve the guerrillas. Weakened by hunger, they would become vulnerable to military operations or surrender. The food denial strategy proved a devastating measure that eventually defeated the insurgents.

The British carefully followed a three-phase approach to implement the food denial strategy. A months-long intelligence-gathering operation inaugurated the program. Special Branch officers infiltrated the Min Yuen support organization inside a designated village. During this time, military patrols deliberately avoided this village. Instead, they operated in adjacent areas in the hope that their presence would push the terrorists toward the apparent sanctuary of the designated village.

The second phase began the day the strict food rationing began and lasted three to five months. It included house-to-house searches to seize food stores and the arrest of known Communist agents who had been identified by the Special Branch undercover agents. Thereafter, security forces tightly guarded the supply convoys that delivered rice to the village. The rice was cooked centrally by government cooks while armed guards looked on. Within the village, authorities controlled the sale and distribution of all other food. Meanwhile, the military patrolled the nearby jungle to provide security against insurgent attacks.

The people were told that the restrictions would end as soon as the terrorists had been killed or captured. If all proceeded as planned, the villagers would tire of this intrusive disruption and denounce the Communist infrastructure. Then, in the final phase, Communist turncoats would lead Special Branch operational teams, masquerading as Communist terrorists, against higher-level formations.

The food denial effort was not airtight. At first many of the village perimeters lacked illumination, making it easy for Communist sympathizers to throw food and medicine to the waiting guerrillas outside the wire. As perimeter security improved, the sympathizers turned to other tactics. Villagers smuggled rice by hiding it inside bicycle frames, cigarette tins, or false-bottomed buckets of pig swill on the supposition that a Malay policeman, because of his Muslim religion, would be unwilling to touch anything to do with swine. When security forces detected these dodges, the insurgents increasingly turned to using children to smuggle food.

The soldiers and the police usually harnessed their efforts in tandem. An infantry officer wrote, “The police could not take on the fighting against the bandits in the jungle, whereas we could not undertake the normal process of maintaining law and order in the villages and towns and protected areas.” Another infantry officer inspected his men while they were on gate duty at a New Village. Long lines of pedestrians, cyclists, and vehicles impatiently waited to leave the village while hour after hour the men of the South Wales Borderers performed meticulous vehicle and body searches. He wrote, “It is not easy to turn one’s battalion into a cross between a body of high-class customs officials and police detectives, but what I saw that morning confirmed everything that has been said about the adaptability of the British soldiers.”

As the security forces became ever more serious about enforcing food regulations, which meant time-consuming personal body searches each morning, villagers became understandably more angry about the long lines as they went outside the wire to work in the fields and jungle. Communist propagandists tried to magnify village grievances, claiming security forces were taking indecent advantage of females during searches. Although the international press published some of this propaganda, it failed to deter the British from intensifying their food denial efforts.

The mere possession of food outside the wire risked a penalty of up to five years in prison. The government reduced the number of stores authorized to sell food, banned tinned Quaker Oats because it was an insurgent emergency ration, restricted the sale of high-energy foods and medicines, and ordered shop keepers to puncture tins of food in the presence of the buyer so tropical heat could begin its spoiling process and prevent the food from being stockpiled for the insurgents. Other draconian measures severely restricted the quantities of tinned meat, fish, and cooking oil permitted in individual households.

While the New Villages were subjected to the methodical imposition of food denial measures, military search-and-destroy operations in adjacent areas proceeded. Often during these operations the security forces imposed a severe rice ration on the local inhabitants. Government spokesmen claimed that this ration was “just enough to keep a person in good health.” According to the Chinese Chamber of Commerce this was not true. The rice ration created “fifty thousand half-starved people, many of whom were too ill or to weak to work.”

Templer and his subordinates were not blind to the human suffering caused by the food denial program. They also considered other adverse consequences such as the real risk of spawning a repressive governmental bureaucracy and the impact of international opprobrium. They weighed the operational effect of the food denial policies versus the impact on civilian morale and pressed ahead. At the same time, the British offered the people an enormous incentive to cooperate. The British called this inducement the “White Area,” a symbolic cleansing of the red taint of Communism.

White Areas were almost literally the carrot to the stick of Emergency regulations. When a region demonstrated loyalty to the government and a corresponding dramatic reduction in Communist activity, authorities suspended Emergency regulations including most especially food restrictions, curfews, limited business hours, and controls over the movement of people and goods. The inhabitants of the New Villages still had to live within their assigned villages and maintain their defenses. But compared to their onerous life under Emergency regulations, this was freedom. The government declared the first White Area in September 1953 and during the next two and a half years extended this designation to include almost half the country’s population.

As time passed, the operational effects of the food denial program were dramatic. The guerrillas literally began to starve. They could hardly lean on sympathizers to provide for them since those sympathizers could honestly say that strict rationing, central cooking, thorough gate searches, and swarming security patrols prevented them from smuggling food to the guerrillas.

When British intelligence pinpointed a guerrilla band on the verge of starvation, security forces flooded the area and food denial operations intensified. At such times civil life came to a standstill as the security forces imposed curfews of up to thirty-six hours along with very strict rice rationing. Knowing that the guerrillas would have to move or die, military forces flooded the area to set ambushes along every possible trail. One such operation in Johore featured three infantry battalions, five Area Security Units, two Police Special service Groups, and a “volunteer” force of ex-guerrillas. For five weeks these forces operated in conjunction with strict local food denial and pervasive psychological warfare efforts. They never killed a single guerrilla, yet their presence led to the collapse of guerrilla morale. Hobbled by hunger, compelled to keep on the move while dodging patrols and ambushes, the guerrillas initially survived only by operating in ever-smaller groups. This dispersal led to the breakdown of command authority. In the absence of officers, individuals found it easier to surrender. As unit disintegration continued, the leaders concluded that further resistance was futile and they too surrendered.

This type of operation could only work in compact, carefully targeted areas where the security forces could completely dominate the terrain. The Johore operation required an enormous expenditure of effort to capture one guerrilla and receive the surrender of eleven more. However, it was an operational approach to which the guerrillas had no answer.