The Malayan Emergency was declared on 18 June 1948, after three estate managers were murdered in Perak, northern Malaya, by guerrillas of the Malayan Communist Party (MCP). MCP was an outgrowth of the anti-Japanese guerrilla movement, which had emerged during the Second World War.
Despite never having had more than a few thousand members, the MCP was able to draw on the support of many disaffected Malayan Chinese. They were upset that British promises of an easier path to full Malayan citizenship had not been fulfilled. The harsh post-war economic and social conditions also contributed to the rise of anti-government activity.
The Malayan government was slow to react to the MCP at first, and did not appoint a director of operations to counter the insurgency until March 1950. The new director planned to address the underlying economic, social and political problems facing the Chinese community, while at the same time bringing government control to the fringe areas where the MCP received much of its support. Before this plan was implemented, the situation deteriorated further with the assassination of the British High Commissioner in October 1951. The attack motivated British resolve to meet the threat posed by the MCP.
The Malayan government also stepped up counter-insurgency measures. Prolonged operations were undertaken against the communists, in an effort to destroy their base of support in local communities, and to drive them into the jungle, where it would be difficult for them to receive supplies from supporters.
Australia's involvement in the Emergency began in 1950 with the arrival of RAAF aircraft and personnel in Singapore. Dakotas from 38 Squadron were deployed on cargo runs, troop movements, and paratroop and leaflet drops in Malaya. Six Lincoln bombers of 1 Squadron provided the backbone of aerial operations.
As the capacity of army and police units operating against the communists improved, the need for air power decreased, and by 1952 Lincolns were increasingly used as part of combined air-ground assaults against the communists.
One of the major military successes of the conflict was one such coordinated operation in July 1954, east of Ipoh in Perak state. In Operation Termite, as the exercise was known, five RAAF Lincolns and six from a Royal Air Force squadron made simultaneous attacks on two communist camps.This was followed by paratroop drops, a ground attack and further bombing runs ten days later. The operation destroyed 181 camps and killed thirteen communists, one of which surrendered.
By October 1955, when the 2nd Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment (2 RAR), arrived in Penang, the outcome of the Emergency was no longer in doubt. A lengthy "mopping up" stage followed, largely undertaken by Australian troops. After several false starts 2 RAR crossed to the mainland in January 1956 to begin anti-communist operations.
Over the next 20 months, as part of 28 Commonwealth Brigade, 2 RAR participated in a variety of operations, mainly in Perak, one of the main areas of communist activity. Their work consisted of extensive patrolling, watching for contacts in the rubber plantations, and mounting a perimeter guard on the New Villages. These were settlements which the government had established to provide infrastructure and services in outlying areas, in the hope of denying the enemy access to their support base. Contacts were rare, and the battalion had a mixed record, killing two communists in an ambush on 25 June 1956 but losing three of its own troops.
2 RAR left Malaya in October 1957, replaced by 3 RAR in the same month. After six weeks of training in jungle warfare; 3 RAR began driving the insurgents into the jungle in Perak and Kedah, separating them from food and other supplies. Early successes for the battalion confirmed the growing ascendancy of the security forces over the communists.
By April 1959 one of the main communist centres, Perak, was declared secure. Operations against the communists were in their final phase and many communists had crossed Malaya's northern border into Thailand. 3 RAR left Malaya in October 1959 to be replaced by 1 RAR. Although operating in the border region, 1 RAR made no contact with the enemy and were forbidden to move into Thailand, even when the presence and location of communists was known.
As the threat continued to dissipate, the Malayan government officially declared the Emergency over on 31 July 1960. 1 RAR remained in Malaya until October the following year, when 2 RAR returned for a second tour. In August 1962 the battalion was committed to anti-communist operations in Perlis and Kedah, completing its tour in August 1963.
In addition to air and infantry forces, Australia also provided artillery and engineering support. In addition, an air-field construction squadron built the main runway for the air force base at Butterworth. Ships of the Royal Australian Navy also served in Malayan waters, with Australian ships firing on suspected communist positions in 1956 and 1957. Australian ground forces in Malaya formed part of Australia's contribution to the Far East Strategic Reserve, which was set up in April 1955 primarily to deter external communist aggression against countries in south-east Asia.
Lasting 13 years, the Malayan Emergency was the longest continuous military commitment in Australia's history. Fifty-one Australian servicemen were killed in Malaya. 15 of these deaths occurred as a result of operations, and 27 were wounded most of whom were in the army.
Sources for further reading
P. Dennis and J. Grey, Emergency and Confrontation: Australian military operations in Malaya and Borneo 1950-1966, Allen and Unwin and the Australian War Memorial, Sydney, 1996.
Peter Dennis et al., The Oxford companion to Australian military history, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1995.
Thumbnail image: The first operation of No 1 Squadron, Royal Australian Air Force from Tengah, Singapore, August 1950. One of the first Avro Lincoln aircraft to set off from Tengah on a bombing operation to inaugurate No 1 Squadron's anti-bandit activities in Malaya, revving up its engines before taxying out to the runway. This is photograph GOV 2667 from the collections of the Imperial War Museums (collection no. 6600-04).