By Alastair MacKenzie
From 1948 to 1960, the British government was involved in a counter-insurgency campaign in Malaya. In 1950, the SAS, known initially as the Malayan Scouts, became involved in the campaign and remained there until 1958. This was the rebirth of the SAS from its post-war demise and it was also the catalyst that enabled the SAS to gain itself a permanent position in the UK forces order of battle. It was a very difficult birth due to the various personalities involved and post-war resentment against special forces by ‘proper soldiers’, and because of the limited effectiveness of this newly formed unit against an elusive jungle enemy.
This time was one of the most complex in the post-war period for the SAS. Not only was the SAS reformed but it was the longest time that it had been involved in a conflict, as well as involving the largest number of SAS troops deployed in one campaign since 1945. At one stage between 1950 and 1958 the SAS had five squadrons deployed, A, B, D, the Independent Parachute Regiment Squadron (1955–57), and the New Zealand SAS Squadron (1955–57). C (Rhodesia) Squadron had operated with the SAS from 1951 to 1953. Britain’s other Special Force unit in existence at the time, the SBS, did not carry out any independent operations in Malaya during the Emergency.
Malaya is a peninsula about the size of the United Kingdom. The land mass divides the South China Sea from the Bay of Bengal and it occupies a strategic position in South East Asia. The city-state of Singapore is at the southern most tip of the peninsula, is about 220 square miles in area and is joined to the mainland by a causeway three-quarters of a mile long, which at the beginning of the Emergency in the mid-1940s, carried both a road and railway line. Communications in the peninsula consisted of one main road and railway running north to south, with poor lateral communications.
On both sides of most roads, rubber and oil palm estates extended outwards for up to three miles before reaching dense jungle.
The indigenous Malay is easy-going, and lacks any great interest in commerce; they contrast strongly with the extremely industrious Chinese and the imported Indian labour.
On 8 December 1941 Japanese troops landed at Kota Bahru, in NE Malaya and began to advance down the peninsula. In Singapore, a special jungle and sabotage training centre, which had existed in a dormant embryonic form for some time, known as the 101st Special Training School (101st STS), was quickly made ready to train volunteers from the Malay Communist Party (MCP) to fight the Japanese. 101 STS was commanded by Lieutenant Colonel FSC. (Footnote #146: FSC remained in the Malayan jungle for over three years being withdrawn by submarine from Pankor Island in 1945. After the war, in which he received a DSO for his service, he became a warden at Reading University. He committed suicide, shooting himself in the summer of 1971. The Malays have established a permanent memorial to him at Emerald Bay on Pankor Laut, Pankor from where the British submarine extracted him and took him to Force 136 HQ in Ceylon (Sri Lanka). The author visited FSC’s Emerald Bay in 1971 and 2004.)
It was agreed that the MCP would provide as many young Chinese as we could accept at 101 Special Training School (STS) and that after the training they could be used against the Japanese in any way we thought fit. (Footnote #147: FSC, F. The Jungle is Neutral. Times Books International, Singapore, 1997, p. 13.)
Before Malaya was overrun by the Japanese, the STS was able to train some 200 Chinese Communists in sabotage and guerrilla training. (Footnote #148: Short, Anthony. In Pursuit of Mountain Rats. The Communist Insurrection in Malaya. Cultured Lotus, Singapore, 2000, p. 21.) These students would form the basis of organised resistance, the Malay People’s Anti Japanese Army (MPAJA), during the Japanese occupation. Some British officers stayed with the MPAJA and others, part of the Special Operations Executive (SOE), Force 136, were parachuted into Malaya and Thailand.
In early 1944 the Allies SEAC (South-East Asia Command), agreed to provide supplies, money and training facilities to the MPAJA on condition that they would cooperate with the Allies against the Japanese. The allied invasion of Malaya, which was scheduled for September 1945, never occurred as the Japanese surrendered on 16 August, and a ceasefire came into effect the following day. Although working with the MPAJA, the Force 136 officers very seldom became involved in any operational activities and so had little opportunity to observe MPAJA attacks or tactics. Nor were they informed of the locations of camps and weapons caches.
The Japanese surrender left a largely communist force in Malaya, armed, equipped and organised, as the British returned. Led by Lai Tek, (Footnote #149: Sometimes referred to as Lai Te.) the MCP and the MPAJA believed they could follow the success of other communist-led insurgencies that were being waged against colonial governments, as well as the success of the Chinese Communist Party. In the meantime, the British hurriedly landed more Allied troops and formally took control of Malaya. A British Military Administration was quickly established to govern the country until a civilian one could be restored.
In January 1946 the British government published a White Paper proposing the establishment of a Malayan Union of 11 states, and a colony of Singapore to which the ruling Sultans agreed, although with some reluctance due to the loss of their traditional feudal powers. Militant Communism seemed to be on the rise, and the MCP saw no reason why it should not be successful in opposing the British-backed regime in Malaya and Singapore.
In 1947, Lai Tek failed to appear for a meeting of the Central Executive Committee of the MCP. His successor was Chin Peng, (Footnote #150: See Peng, Chin. My Side of History. Media Masters Pte Ltd, Singapore, 2003.) the second-in-command, in effect, until Lai Teck’s disappearance. (Footnote #151: In his autobiography, Chin Peng states that he unmasked Lai Tek as a longterm British agent in March 1947, and later that year Lai Tek was murdered in Bangkok by members of the Thai Communist Party. See Peng: My Side of History, pp. 179 and 190.) He was elected Secretary-General of the MCP. Born in Malaya, he had fought against the Japanese during their occupation of Malaya, had been in frequent contact with British officers(Footnote #152: FSC refers to him as ‘Chen Ping’. See FSC: The Jungle is Neutral, passim.) and Allied personnel, and was a confirmed communist. He was 27 years old in 1948 and had been awarded the OBE for his services during the occupation (the award was later revoked). He spoke English, Malay and several Chinese dialects.
It was a war, but there was a curious reason why it was never called one. It was a war – though out of regard for the London insurance market, on which the Malayan economy relied for cover, no one ever used the word. This misnomer continued for twelve years, for the simple reason that insurance rates covered losses of stock and equipment through riot and civil commotion in an emergency, but not in a civil war. (Footnote #153: Barber, N. The War of the Running Dogs. Williams Collins Sons and Co Ltd, London, 1971. As explained in Barber’s preface notes.)
Malaya possessed valuable minerals such as coal, bauxite, tungsten, gold, iron ore, manganese and china clay, but its main riches were rubber and tin. Apart from rubber, in 1950, the tin mining industry of Malaya was the biggest dollar earner in the British Commonwealth. The chief problem with the insurgency was it threatened British control and disrupted the dollar earning exports of the rubber and tin industries. In 1948 Malaya was the most important source of dollars in the colonial empire and it would gravely worsen the whole dollar balance of the Sterling area if there was serious interference with the Malayan exports. Even if the insurgents did not score any military or political successes they could easily wreck the economy of Malaya. Existing deposits of tin were being quickly used up and, owing to communist activities in the jungle and on the jungle fringe, no new areas were being prospected for future working. If no new prospecting were to be resumed over a large area, tin mining could cease in about 10 to 12 years. The situation regarding rubber was no less difficult, with the fall in output largely due to the direct and indirect effects of communist sabotage.
The threat of communism represented by the Malayan insurgents was perceived by British planners as real. Britain’s primary interest in Malaya was economic, and it wished to continue to use the resources of that country for the benefit of British business interests. Communism in Malaya simply posed a threat that Britain would lose control over these economic resources. There was never any question of the military intervention in Malaya by either the USSR or China. Nor, indeed, was any material support ever proffered by either the USSR or China to the insurgents in Malaya; the problem was a purely internal affair.
The murder of three European planters on 16 June 1948 near the small town of Sungei Spur, in Perak, brought matters to a head and resulted in the High Commissioner, Sir Edward Gent, declaring an emergency in parts of Perak and Johore, which was extended to the whole of the country the following day. This was the beginning of the period known as the Malayan Emergency.
In Malaya on the declaration of the Emergency the British and Malay armed force amounted to five British, two Malay and six Gurkha battalions. The RAF had 100 aircraft in the country, and in mid-1948 started to strafe guerrillas’ locations and bomb suspected guerrilla camps and locations. The Federation Police numbered 10,223, nearly all Malays.
The Military was commanded by the General Officer Commanding (GOC), Major General Charles Boucher, GOC Malayan District. Boucher, and the Commander-in-Chief (CinC), Far East Land Forces (FARELF), General Sir Neil Ritchie (Footnote #154: This is the same officer who was involved with David Stirling in 1941.), were both familiar with recent counter-insurgency operations in Greece, Boucher having been there himself, and Ritchie’s chief of staff having also served there immediately prior to his posting to the Far East. Two British battalions, also recently in Greece, were transferred to Malaya in mid-1948.
In 1948, the Malay Races Liberation Army (MRLA), as the MPAJA was now known, was insufficiently organised and incapable of directly engaging British armed forces. It continued to attack small village police stations, which usually had fewer than a dozen Malay policemen to defend them. Also, they continued terrorist activities against civilians and sabotage attacks on machinery, plantations and communications.
Early Special Operations
Former British officers of Force 136, many of them now planters, and a number of serving and former servicemen, established a small organisation which was designed to seek out the guerrillas so they could be attacked by the main security forces.
In late July, in order to relieve some of the pressure on infantry battalions, a temporary unit was formed for country-wide operations. Known as Ferret Force, it was made up of a Force Headquarters and four Groups. A Group consisted of four infantry sections, each commanded by an ex-member of either Force 136 or Wingate’s Chindits. (Footnote #155: James, Harold and Sheil-Small, Denis. A Pride of Gurkhas. Leo Cooper Ltd, London, 1975, p. 8.)
This unique organisation, which demonstrated the flair and imagination that had been missing from operations so far in Malaya, had a brief, but effective, life. Regular units resented losing trained men to this new force—a frequent criticism of special forces ever since Churchill’s ‘commandos’ were formed in 1940.
The secondment of men to Ferret Force, however, left the rifle companies less than fifty strong. (Footnote #156: James, Harold and Sheil-Small, Denis. A Pride of Gurkhas. Leo Cooper Ltd, London, 1975, p. 9.)
The Ferret Force teams travelled as light as they could and only essential rations were parachuted to them as they tried, as much as possible, to live off the land, minimising the possibility of their presence being detected by the CTs (Communist Terrorists). (Footnote #157: In 1952 a memorandum from the Secretary of Defence stipulated that the insurgents/bandits would be officially known as ‘communist terrorists’ or ‘CTs’. – undated (1952) ‘Official Designation of the Communist Forces’ PRO, CO 1022/48SEA 10/172/01.)
The purpose of this long-range jungle group was to go and live in the jungle, to establish good relations with the aborigines and locate and destroy the guerrillas either by themselves or in conjunction with regular forces. (Footnote #158: Short: In Pursuit of Mountain Rats, p. 132.)
Lieutenant Colonel Walter Walker, (Footnote #159: Lieutenant Colonel Walker was an important operational innovator during the whole of the Emergency and during the later Borneo campaign, where he was appointed the Commander of British Forces.) a highly decorated Burma veteran, was chosen to command Ferret Force. Walker’s own study of communist terrorist strategy and tactics convinced him that he would be dealing with an increasingly powerful and cunning enemy. Walker had been training the Ferret Force teams for only about a month when he was told that he was going to take over as Commandant of the new jungle-warfare training school (JWS). This new school was to prepare British soldiers to fight the terrorists on their own ground. During his time at the JWS, Walker wrote the definitive Anti-Terrorist Operational Manual. (Footnote #160: See PRO WO279/241 The Conduct of Anti-terrorist Operations in Malaya.) Without military sponsorship or Walker’s drive and enthusiasm Ferret Force survived only a matter of weeks after his departure.
Even in its short life, there were disagreements between Army and Police officers over Ferret Force methods and its use.
For various reasons which included administrative problems; the dislike of the services for ‘private armies’; and the change in composition from that originally envisaged, the four Ferret groups were ending their operations by November. (Footnote #161: Short: In Pursuit of Mountain Rats, p. 133.)
The brief life of Ferret Force was not wasted. It not only helped inspire the future deep-penetration operations of the SAS at a later stage of the campaign, but also enhanced the routine jungle patrolling techniques used by infantry platoons, which would otherwise have seemed hopelessly beyond the capabilities of European soldiers. Other initiatives included Chinese jungle squads.
If it had been possible, John Davis’s (Footnote #162: A former Force 136 officer who had remained in the jungle during the Japanese occupation of Malaya.) proposal of the experiment of a Chinese jungle squad might have paid the greatest dividends. Their role was part intelligence gathering, part agent provocateur. (Footnote #163: Short: In Pursuit of Mountain Rats, p. 133.)
Later, in mid-1953, the Special Operations Volunteer Force (SOVF) was created. This force was composed of surrendered enemy personnel (SEP) and other volunteers. It had 180 ex-communists grouped into 12 platoons of 15 men each. These men volunteered for 18 months’ service, lived in police compounds, received similar salaries to the lowest-ranking policemen and went back into the jungle to persuade their erstwhile colleagues to surrender, or to kill them.
After the declaration of the Emergency in 1948, there were a number of important developments. The High Commissioner of Malaya, Sir Edward Gent, was killed in an air crash in the UK and in September Whitehall appointed a successor, Sir Henry Gurney. Gurney had been Chief Secretary to the Administration in Palestine during the last two years of the British mandate.
It was Gurney who quietly devised a classical strategy for eventual victory. (Footnote #164: Barber: The War of the Running Dogs, p. 62.)
Gurney was a man who, even if he did not have the power to win the war, had the foresight to know how it should be won. His tenure of office lasted two years to the day before ending in tragedy.
Gurney’s first historic decision was, briefly, that on no account, must the armed forces have control over the conduct of the war. This, he argued, was a war of political ideologies. (Footnote #165: Barber: The War of the Running Dogs, p. 62.)
The British authorities had already indicated that they would give Malaya its independence and this took away the mainstay of the MCP’s role—that of removing the colonial power. Gurney was very conscious that he needed a director of operations, and finally, in April 1950, Whitehall appointed Lieutenant General Sir Harold Briggs as:
Director of Operations ‘to plan, to co-ordinate, and direct the operations of the police and fighting forces’. (Footnote #166: Barber: The War of the Running Dogs, p. 95.)
Briggs was to act as the executive to the High Commissioner, Gurney. Briggs had retired to Cyprus in 1948 after a distinguished military career which included commanding the 5th Indian Division in Burma from 1942 to 1945, and he had much experience in jungle warfare.
As well as undermining the political direction of the MCP, Gurney realised that the key to destroying the CTs was removing them from their source of food, information and recruits. These were mainly being provided by the squatters, of Chinese origin, who lived on the outskirts of all the villages and towns in Malaya. The CTs’ support group, or Min Yuen, provided assistants either willingly or under threat. If the CTs and the Min Yuen could be separated, this would make the military task of destroying the terrorists easier. The only way to do this would be to move the squatters into controlled villages from which movements of both food and personnel could be monitored by the police and the army.
On 6 October 1951, a terrorist platoon of 38 CTs carried out a successful ambush of Sir Henry Gurney as he was travelling to the Fraser’s Hill ‘change of air station’. This was a major coup by the CTs, even though the ambush had not been directly targeted against Gurney.
Suddenly a door of the Rolls opened and out stepped Gurney. Almost leisurely he banged the door shut, and started to walk towards the high bank – and the shooting. (Footnote #167: Barber: The War of the Running Dogs, p. 131.)
Gurney’s death caused a severe drop in morale (Footnote #168: Thompson, Robert. Make for the Hills. Leo Cooper Ltd., London, 1989, p. 97.) within the political, civilian and commercial communities and was a major blow to the campaign.
On 21 October 1951 Winston Churchill became Prime Minister and he was immediately concerned about the situation in Malaya. By 1951–52 British troops in Malaya numbered about 25,000 with a further 10,000 Gurkhas. Total security forces equalled about 300,000 in 1953. Even so, progress against guerrillas, who never numbered more than 8,000, was painfully slow. It was much more than just a military operation. Briggs had been in communication with Churchill and he had recommended there should be one man in control of both military and civil affairs. Churchill gave the appointment to General Sir Gerald Templer.
54 year-old General Sir Gerald Templer was every inch a soldier–and looked it . . . (Footnote #169: Barber: The War of the Running Dogs, p. 148)
General Templer, departing from Britain in earlier 1952 to become High Commissioner in Malaya, declared that the political, economic and social policies would be decisive. Briggs completed his tour and returned to UK in that same year.
Involvement of the SAS
It should be remembered that the situation in Malaya was bad and getting worse in 1950. (Footnote #170: Interview AAA 25 August 2004.)
The involvement of the Special Air Service (SAS) in the Emergency was at a time when, immediately prior to the establishment of the unit, there was a complicated and convoluted military and political situation. The complex picture at the time is exacerbated by the fact that the SAS in Malaya was, literally, being started from scratch.
The success of Ferret Force, albeit brief, demonstrated that the most effective military operations were by small units of platoons, sections and even sub-sections undertaking deep-penetration patrols into the jungle.
General Sir John Harding, Commander-in-Chief Far East, decided he needed independent advice from an expert in jungle warfare to combat the communist insurgents. He called in Major ‘Mad’ Mike Calvert, (Footnote #171: See Calvert: Fighting Mad.) who had considerable experience of jungle warfare in Burma during the Second World War and, by the end of the war, was commanding the SAS brigade. Calvert had also been one of the prime movers in ensuring the SAS ethic had not died out at the end of the war. Calvert, having been demoted to the rank of major, as had most wartime officers of brigadier rank, had a staff appointment in Hong Kong as G1 Air, training troops bound for Korea in the use of air support.
Once given this task, Calvert tackled it with his normal aggression and drive and he travelled throughout Malaya (Footnote #172: During one of his reconnaissance trips Calvert was ambushed: ‘my driver and I were moving at a fair pace along a jungle road when a burst of machine-gun fire came from the thick bush, slightly ahead of us. We jerked to a halt and flung ourselves into a ditch by the side of the road. For the first time in more than five years I was under enemy fire and when a grenade landed neatly beside me in the ditch I thought it was for the last time. I snatched up the grenade, hoping to be able to throw it out before it went off, and then I noticed that the pin was still in position. A piece of paper was attached to it and a scrawled message said; ‘How do you do, Mr Calvert?’ It could mean only one thing. Somebody I had known, and probably trained, in the old days in Hong Kong or in Burma, was now on the other side, fighting for the Communists’. Calvert: Fighting Mad, p. 202.) with an open brief to assess the current situation. His fact-finding trips, working with both police patrols and military patrols, covered over 1,500 miles of enemy-occupied territory.
For the next six months I travelled extensively all over Malaya. I visited ornate palaces and asked the views of wealthy sultans. I went to brothels and picked up the gossip of the gutter. I had myself put in jail in disguise and rubbed shoulders with captured Communists. I went on tours of the jungle on my own and I joined anti-rebel patrols of British troops in the jungle. (Footnote #173: Ibid., p. 202.)
Not all Calvert’s advice was received with good grace and this was made particularly clear when he was visiting an infantry unit in the field.
I suggested that they go out on patrols, not in a section or platoon, but just a few men at a time. The battalion commander listened to this and suddenly he blew up and said, ‘My Regiment was raised and trained to fight in Europe and I am not going to change my organisation and training just to chase a few bare-arsed niggers around South East Asia’. (Footnote #174: Ibid., pp. 202–4.)
Calvert made a number of significant observations about the quality of the troops involved in the campaign at the time and their methods of operations.
Most of the troops were national servicemen with little or no jungle experience. Many of the officers had no experience of jungle fighting; they had been taken prisoner of war at places like Dunkirk and Singapore and were released at the end of the war. (Footnote #175: Ibid., pp. 202–3.)
Calvert delivered the results of his survey direct to Briggs.
When the six months were up I made my official report, which comprised ten or twelve points. A number of these were included in what became known as the Briggs Plan, put forward by General Briggs, the Director of Operations at that time. (Footnote #176: Ibid., pp. 202–4.)
Calvert recommended separating the terrorists from their support element; training a deep-penetration patrol unit to locate CT encampments and either destroy them or to lead conventional forces to the area; and to separate the CTs from the jungle aborigines, who, it was believed, were assisting the CTs. The task was to interdict the CTs’ food and intelligence supply by denying them support and freedom of movement.
Calvert recommended that the Police should stop sending patrols into the jungle and concentrate on the protection of civilians and the expansion of Special Branch. In connection with this it was essential to move scattered settlements of Chinese, known as squatters, into new villages where they could be concentrated and protected. Calvert firmly believed that only once these proposals were adopted should a Special Force be formed to operate in the deep jungle.
Calvert’s recommendations struck a chord and he was provided with the opportunity to re-establish the SAS.
This suggestion was approved and I was told to form a force. The name I chose for the new unit was the Malayan Scouts (Special Air Service Regiment) and its role was to operate in deep jungle areas not already covered by other security forces, with the object of destroying guerrilla forces, their camps and sources of supply. (Footnote #177: Ibid., p. 205.)
This was the area, key to the future of the SAS, where Calvert had identified a niche for a new force. However, it was stressed by General Ritchie that it would be only for the duration of the emergency, under Far East Command, and with nothing to do with the SAS Territorial Army set-up in Britain.
Calvert worked to establish the unit that he had recommended but, to a certain degree, he had been handed a poisoned chalice. He was only able to recruit personnel from the Far East land forces and his choice of officers was limited. Frequently commanding officers would send him their worst men. Moreover, he was not provided with a suitable administrative infrastructure.
Another cause of the bad start in Malaya was the woeful inadequacy of the administrative and field staff. Malaya Command should have known that a strong staff of A [Administration] and Q [Quartermastering] was essential but they had failed to appoint one and Mike Calvert did not insist on replacements. (Footnote #178: Interview AAA 25 August 2004.)
He was tasked with setting up the unit as quickly as possible and as a result he received a certain amount of criticism about his command and discipline.
Perhaps the strongest and most justified criticism of the Malayan Scouts was poor discipline in and out of the jungle. (Footnote #179: Interview AAA 25 August 2004.)
The absolutely critical role that Calvert played in the formulation of the Briggs Plan is often given only passing acknowledgement, and often ignored. Without Calvert’s recommendation, it is unlikely that the SAS would have been resurrected.
At this point, it is useful to identify key ‘personalities’ in the fledgling SAS. An assessment of British Special Forces (BSF) during and since the Second World War shows that elite forces have a number of identifiable individuals who, through extreme bravery, original thought, vision, administrative tenacity, or opportunism feature throughout the years. These individuals may be liked or disliked by the organisation they belong to, or they may be liked or disliked by the military fraternity as a whole, but they cannot be ignored. The early days of the SAS in Malaya have several key personalities . . . Individuals identified at this stage are Calvert himself, JW, Newell, Sloane, Deane-Drummond and DLB. This is not meant to mean that others were not important or critical but these particular individuals are very relevant at this stage.
The development of the Briggs Plan (Footnote #180: It should be noted that the involvement in, and contribution to, the Briggs Plan by Briggs’s senior administrator, Robert Thompson, is at variance with the version of events provided by Calvert. Thompson worked in Calvert’s headquarters in 77th Chindit Brigade during the second Chindit campaign and they knew each other well. However, Thompson makes no reference whatsoever to Calvert’s involvement in Malaya and, more importantly, Calvert’s contribution to the key components of the Briggs Plan. More surprisingly, Thompson’s autobiography makes no reference to Calvert’s, nor the SAS’s, involvement in the Malaya campaign. This is odd because Thompson was at the heart of the Malayan administration and would be aware of all the various military operations and forces being employed, particularly those operations of a special force nature. After all, Thompson had been in the Chindits and was also a founder member of Ferret Force. Support from Thompson, who was in such a key position in the civilian administration, as well as being close to Briggs, might have made Calvert’s life a little easier in the early days of the SAS formation. But, for whatever reason, Thompson chose to ignore the role of Calvert and the SAS throughout the Malayan Emergency.) was critical for the future of the SAS. Without Calvert’s initial input, the Briggs Plan might not have been produced. Moreover, without Calvert’s insistence to Briggs that there was a need for a force to be specifically tasked with deep-penetration patrolling, the SAS would not have been regenerated.
Calvert’s initial step was to search for volunteers but, under the pressures to start operations as soon as possible, he could not be as particular as he would have liked over the standard of recruits. Moreover, he was only permitted to recruit in the Far East. This first recruiting search produced 100 men. Gaining approval for the new unit was a far easier task than raising the new organisation. This was in many ways due to the very big anti-Chindit element among the former Indian Army officers, dating back to the Burma campaign days.
The new formation was called the Malayan Scouts (SAS) (Footnote #181: The Malayan Scouts wore shoulder titles on their olive-green jungle uniforms, and under the titles were the green patch and yellow kris (S-bladed Malay dagger) of the Malaya military command.) and the first recruits to the new unit were formed into A Squadron, The Malayan Scouts.
These first recruits included volunteers (Footnote #182: At one point, Roy Farran, former wartime SAS, was offered command of a squadron in the newly formed unit, but the War Office blocked the appointment in October 1950. This block was because Farran, when he was working in covert operations in Palestine, had been court-martialled and found not guilty of murdering Alexander Rubovitz, a member of a Jewish terrorist organisation, LEHI (more commonly known as the Stern Gang after its leader Avraham Stern, who had disappeared in May 1947). Some years later Farran’s brother was murdered in England by a parcel bomb meant for Farran himself. Farran, who lived in Canada, used to receive a Christmas card each year from the terrorists in the Stern Gang. He died in June 2006.) who – like Major CE (‘Dare’) Newell – had served with SOE in Malaya in 1945. Newell, as well as some other recruits, had also been in Ferret Force. Importantly, Calvert also brought together in Johore an intelligence section of men experienced in jungle operations from the time seven years earlier when they had worked with him in Burma, including Hong Kong Chinese to act as interpreters. The head of this ‘int’ Section was JW, Dorset Regiment. JW had joined the army as a private in 1941. A linguist, he had served for two years as an interpreter with the Russians. Calvert was impressed with JW.
One of my better acquisitions was Captain JW who was serving as G3 Intelligence to 40th Infantry Division in Hong Kong. (Footnote #183: Calvert: Fighting Mad, p. 206.)
Calvert was under pressure to get results quickly and in his inimitable fashion drove things on with determination.
There are far too many officers afraid to make a decision, looking for the bloody rules before they do anything. An officer who never makes a mistake is not doing anything, he’s useless – but don’t make the same mistakes twice. We’ve got to get a move on with our training, people want to see results from us, and they put a lot of faith in us. There isn’t time to ‘do a Monty’. We can’t afford to wait until everything is ready before we begin operations. (Footnote #184: Mars and Minerva. December 2002, p. 19.)
The second source of recruits was the group of wartime SAS, now reservists, known as M Squadron of 21 SAS and commanded by Major Anthony Greville-Bell, who had been formed to fight in Korea. Re-designated B Squadron of the Malayan Scouts, they were under the command of, and trained by, JW.
The new arrivals from Britain, now B Squadron, were not impressed with what they saw and sent back reports to 21 SAS in UK of indiscipline and heavy drinking, which obviously marred the reputation of A Squadron, and its founder, Calvert. Calvert based some of his operational procedures on his wartime experiences but this was now a different army and these were different times. (Footnote #185: ‘Men were allowed to grow beards in the jungle, which was a sensible idea in that they hid their white faces, but when the men came out they were allowed to keep them on, contrary to all the traditions of the Army. The sight of smelly, scruffy, bearded soldiers was one which caused almost apoplexy in the Staff and derision among all the other units in the Army. It was a very bad mistake.’ Interview AAA 25 August 2004. Calvert’s own views on beards were based upon his experiences in the jungles of Burma, but the attitude of other units in Malaya towards the wearing of beards out of the jungle was quite different to those days of the Second World War. ‘Opinions differ on beards. Some people would not be without one while others can’t stand them at any price. I can take them or leave them. I grew a big, black bushy one on the first Chindit campaign; this time I stayed clean-shaven. But in wartime beards definitely have their uses. If a man thinks he looks tough he will often be tough and, more important, act tough.’ Calvert: Fighting Mad, p. 166.)
Calvert made time to widen his search for suitable men, visiting Rhodesia where his staff was able to select some 120, most of whom had wartime experience, to form C Squadron. As there was this opportunity to be selective, ‘C’ would prove one of the most professional of the SAS Squadrons, serving in Malaya from 1951 to 1953.
They were, many of them, very big, strong and physically robust men and indeed, of course later on, they or their successors in the Rhodesian SAS had put up a terrific show in the fight against independence for Rhodesia. (Footnote #186: Interview AAA 25 August 2004.)
Two of the squadron were killed in action before it returned to Rhodesia (modern Zimbabwe). There it was later to become the nucleus of the Rhodesian SAS Regiment, although it continued to be known as C Squadron for many years.
The Rhodesian squadron in 1951 had a three weeks training exercise before operations advised only by me and one NCO, with perhaps nine months jungle experience between us – it was a case of the blind leading the blind. This squadron with a high percentage of potentially outstanding SAS soldiers never realised its full potential in Malaya. Through no fault of its own, but because it was never properly trained, the same mistake was not made with the New Zealand SAS squadron, when it joined in 1955. (Footnote #187: Interview AAA 25 August 2004.)
Meanwhile, A Squadron, a hundred strong, was completing its training course. This included throwing grenades and diving for cover in the deep monsoon drains running through their camp area, one of several lessons with live ammunition that disregarded the normal safety rules for field firing ranges. Since there was neither the time nor facilities for such routines, all training–much in the way Calvert had known it in 1940 (Footnote #188: Calvert: Fighting Mad, p. 205.)–had to take place on football pitches and other clear spaces around the camp. This and A Squadron’s hard drinking were criticised at the time by the more prosaic officers of B and C Squadrons, and would be a lingering criticism of SAS standards for the next ten years. In 1981, JW felt compelled to write a letter (Footnote# 189: Letter written to the SAS Regimental Association on 9 December 1981.) as a result of lingering criticisms of the Malayan Scouts.
Calvert was under pressure to get results and get them quickly. Calvert’s comparison was that a building site can be a rough and mucky place until construction is finished. (Footnote #190: Interview AAA 25 August 2004.)
However, not all the observations of A Squadron were critical and the newly arrived Rhodesians were somewhat overawed and impressed by the ‘hard men’ of the original A Squadron.
Despite their shortcomings, they did have some very good jungle soldiers and fine officers, and the Rhodesians would be impressed with the way some men could use themselves around the jungle. (Footnote #191: Cole, Barbara. The Elite – The Story of the Rhodesian Special Air Service. Three Knights Publishing, Transkei, 1984, p. 10.)
What was not realised by the more critical officers were Ritchie’s directions to Calvert about the Malayan Scouts being a ‘one-off’ unit, as well as Calvert’s quite different concept of the Scouts as an ad hoc unit. Such units – Calvert argued – could be formed and disbanded more readily than squadrons drawn entirely from a British regiment.
While conflicts with the enemy were few, the Malayan Scouts learned vital lessons about jungle warfare. JW, however, has some withering comments to make about A Squadron’s operations:
The lack of success of these first big operations was certainly not due to any ‘lack of determination or will’. It was also a fact that ‘A’ Squadron was not up to scratch … prolonged failure to make contact with the enemy led to ‘a slackening of battle procedures’, the troopers becoming ‘extremely careless, very noisy and rather bored, going round the jungle in a slaphappy way with big fires at night, dropping sweet papers or ration tins around the place and not hiding them.’(Footnote #192: Interview AAA 25 August 2004.)
Calvert had driven his troops hard, and himself even harder. Even a man with his iron constitution could not keep going forever and, not surprisingly, ill and exhausted he had to withdraw from operations. He was hospitalised in Malaya and then Singapore before being medically evacuated back to Britain. He describes the situation himself:
In June 1951, I found myself in the British Military Hospital in Kinrara for 12 days, suffering from ‘Hepatomegaly’ [sic] of unknown origin. On 22nd June I was flown to the British Military Hospital in Singapore and thence to the UK as a Class ‘A’ invalid to the Queen Alexandra Military Hospital in London. (Footnote #193: Calvert: Fighting Mad, p. 208.)
A little under six months after Calvert’s medical evacuation, on 22 December 1951, his success was articulated by General Headquarters, Far East Land Forces (GHQ, FARELF), which wrote a comprehensive report to the Under Secretary of State at the War office about the employment of the Malayan Scouts. In this report, the role of the Malayan Scouts was defined as to operate in the deep jungle areas not already covered by other Security Forces with the object of destroying ‘bandit’ forces, their camps and their sources of supply. The report stated that no other units in Malaya were sufficiently organised or equipped for this task, which was vital for bringing the bandits to battle. The result, the report stated, was that the unit was becoming a ‘Corps d’Elite’ in deep jungle operations and a most valuable component of the armed forces in Malaya. This report, prepared only some 18 months after Calvert had been given the task to establish a Special Force but with virtually no assets, was
a comprehensive vindication of his vision and commitment against the odds. Moreover, the report recommended that the Malayan Scouts title be amended to 22 Special Air Service Regiment and added to the Army’s permanent order of battle. (Footnote #194: PRO – WO216/494 – Report on the Malayan Scouts – Special Air Service Regiment. See Appendix 6.)
Calvert remained a key supporter of the SAS but his departure from Malaya marked the high point of his military career. He had, personally, re-established the SAS, but like a catalyst in any chemical action, he was ‘destroyed’ in the process and played little further part in any future SAS decision-making process. Sadly, his efforts have been less than appreciated by the majority of the newer generations of SAS who, through ignorance, are not aware of his importance to the sophisticated organisation that the SAS has now become.
I am sorry to say that I think people’s views of Mike Calvert had been affected by his heavy drinking initially, and I am afraid also that the fact that he was convicted on a homosexuality charge in 1953 or 1954 in Germany, after he had left the SAS. I think that tends to influence people’s view of him. (Footnote #195: Interview AAA 25 August 2004.)
On 27 July, Lieutenant Colonel John Sloane, Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, fresh from Korea and an infantry officer, with neither special forces experience nor jungle experience, took over from Calvert.
He took but a short time to assess the situation he found himself in and made a number of far-reaching decisions. His feelings and tentative ideas are shown in a letter (Footnote #196: See Appendix 4 – The letter was written on 20 August 1951.) he wrote soon after assuming command. (Footnote #197: Hoe, A. and Morris, E. Re-enter the SAS, Leo Cooper, London, 1994, p. 100.)
He brought in more conventional measures of discipline and ‘normal military order’. Sloane pulled the squadrons out of the jungle and instituted a period of solid retraining for all personnel in late 1951 and early 1952. Newell and several other officers, who were considering returning to conventional soldiering, were persuaded to stay with the unit.
It is a pity that so little recognition has been made to [sic] Lt. Colonel Sloane, who started the administrative and disciplinary improvements continued by Colonel Oliver Brooke in the early 50s. (Footnote #198: Interview AAA 25 August 2004.)
In 1952 the designation ‘Malayan Scouts’ was dropped and 22 SAS Regiment came into being, albeit at this time wearing the red beret of the Parachute Regiment – adopted with the SAS cap badge.
JW went back to England to start a selection process for new aspirants to the SAS. (Footnote #199: ‘The first selection course was for 7 days, I took it to Snowdon by train and then walking with the intention of sorting them out with map reading and endurance test – it was chiefly notable that I contracted Malaria in the middle of this, and my endurance was far more severely tested than the recruits.’ Interview AAA 25 August 2004.) JW had a unique manner of teaching his soldiers the sort of skills necessary to successfully defeat a wily jungle enemy – some of his methods are legendary.
There is a rather silly story that I gave a man a grenade without the pin in for a week whereas the true facts of that is that a man was put out on sentry just out of sight from the camp with a grenade only and it obviously had the pin in – but it was ready to throw. I once discharged a rifle negligently too and had to fine myself double. On a training exercise, when I came back to patrol base on an exercise, the sentry there who should not have had live ammunition, fired a shot which missed me narrowly and I did charge him for missing – that was just a stunt to amuse the troops.(Footnote #200: Interview AAA 25 August 2004.)
When JW returned to Malaya to command D Squadron after a short tour at Regimental Headquarters in England he left behind a properly established selection set up at Dering Lines in Brecon. JC, one of the original members of the wartime SAS, took over B Squadron. A young lieutenant who was to feature regularly in the regiment’s activity over the forthcoming years, DLB, also joined the regiment at that time.
DLB (Footnote #201: Major Harry Thompson was DLB’s first squadron commander and was unimpressed with DLB and had every intention of having him returned to his unit. However, this was countermanded by the commanding officer at the time, Deane-Drummond, and DLB was moved to a job in the headquarters. Thompson, it has been stated, was destined to become the commanding officer of the regiment, but he died in a helicopter crash early in the Borneo campaign. It is worth considering whether DLB’s career fortunes would have been the same if Thompson had not died. DLB: Looking For Trouble, p.126) had some reservations about his first acquaintances with the SAS, and some particularly harsh comments about Mike Calvert’s methods:
… to join such a shoddy organisation would finish my career prospects in one quick move – a kind of sudden death. (Footnote #202: DLB: Looking For Trouble, p. 89.)
It is worth examining some of the observations that DLB makes during his work with the SAS in Malaya because they can be linked with activities with which he is involved later during his lengthy and varied career in the SAS. (Footnote #203: The author was advised by an impeccable source that DLB was described by an SAS officer, who served with him for many years in the SAS and became his commanding officer, as a ‘serial opportunist’. It is not apparent whether this description was meant to be pejorative or a compliment.)
DLB also describes the difficulties he had as troop commander with his new troop in B Squadron – the same squadron he had difficulties with in another war on the other side of the world in 1980.
Yet physical difficulties were small in comparison with the problems I had in controlling my troop. Not for nothing was B Squadron known as ‘Big-Time B’. (Footnote #204: DLB: Looking For Trouble, p. 116.)
As previously mentioned, DLB’s initial introduction to the SAS was not particularly impressive and he was removed from the operational area and deployed in the base area. The reason for his removal from operations seems to have been somewhat of a mystery to him; however, his new position in the Operations Room actually placed him in an excellent position to be firmly involved in the next campaign the regiment was to become involved in.
One of the main problems with the SAS’s adopted role of deep penetration patrolling of the jungle hinterland was the time and energy spent actually walking into the main operational area. This was before the regular availability of troop-carrying helicopters. A new tactic of parachuting into the high trees which covered the landscape was instituted, and although there were frequent casualties, it continued until the end of the war. DLB describes the process as an ‘exceedingly hazardous procedure’. (Footnote #205: Ibid., p. 124.)
Lieutenant Colonel Sloane handed over command of 22 SAS in 1953 to Lieutenant Colonel Oliver Brooke (Footnote #206: Oliver Brooke, George Lea’s predecessor as commanding officer, broke his back in a tree-jumping operation and was crippled for life.) and, towards the end of that year, the Rhodesian C Squadron departed for Rhodesia.
The Rhodesians’ commitment lasted almost two years. Malaya had been a valuable experience and they had learned the elementary principles of counter-insurgency warfare. (Footnote #207: Cole: The Elite, p. 12.)
Always ready to make an observation, Dare Newell commented on the Rhodesian’s contribution to the Emergency.
Of course we owe them a debt of gratitude. Their numbers swelled our ranks at a time when we desperately needed them and they had some very fine soldiers. There are criticisms, of course, I don’t think they were as at ease with the aborigines as the Brits but that is understandable given the background and they had a lot of trouble with jungle diseases. (Footnote #208: Hoe and Morris: Re-enter, p. 187.)
Newell’s comments, which are often repeated in books and journals about the early days of the SAS in Malaya, are certainly at odds with the view the Rhodesians had, particularly regarding their ability to relate to the aboriginals. Cole’s comprehensive book about the Rhodesian SAS offers a quite different view.
Off-duty, the Rhodesians became the best of friends with the black Fijians, making nonsense of some claims that the Rhodesians in Malaya were a shade too colour conscious. The truth was the Rhodesians with their background were better orientated towards mixing with blacks and coloureds than the average British troopie [sic] who seldom associated with them. (Footnote #209: Cole: The Elite, p. 11.)
The Rhodesian’s Malaya experience would prove invaluable when they fought encroaching terrorist threats in their own homeland. One young trooper in C Squadron was Ron Reid Daly, who would raise and command Rhodesia’s Selous Scouts.
The former Rhodesians still maintain their connection to the British SAS and C Squadron still remains vacant in the 22 SAS order of battle today, and this strong affiliation between 22 SAS and its Rhodesian colleagues remains. Interestingly, when the Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI) was declared by Ian Smith’s government in Rhodesia on 11 November 1965, it is alleged that the Wilson government considered using the British SAS in Rhodesia but primary sources to this effect have not been located. If this is true, Wilson, who also deployed the SAS to Northern Ireland in 1976, is one of the very few post-war prime ministers who could understand the strategic and public relations value of correctly utilising the SAS. According to Connor, the possible use of troops from 22 SAS against Rhodesia caused a great deal of disquiet. Again according to Connor, there was a strong possibility of dissent if 22 SAS had been directed to carry out offensive operations in Rhodesia against former colleagues. Connor alleges a secret poll was conducted among SAS troopers.
If the order to go to Rhodesia is given, would you be willing to fight? A substantial majority said ‘No!’ (Footnote #210: Connor: Ghost Force, p. 116.)
The requirement for the services of the SAS was increasing substantially and in October 1953, following the departure of the Rhodesians, D Squadron was formed.
They (The Rhodesians) were quickly followed by what became ‘D’ Squadron, made up of volunteers who ‘had spent a few weeks at the Airborne Forces Depot in Aldershot (Footnote #211: Kemp states that D Squadron was raised locally. See Kemp: The SAS, p. 27.) where they were not parachute-trained but simply used as heavers of coal and hewers of wood – not the best preparation for joining the Malayan Scouts.’ JW became ‘D’ Squadron’s first commander (Footnote #212: Kemp believes that D Squadron was first commanded by JC, one of the wartime SAS ‘Originals’. See Kemp: The SAS, p. 27.) leading them for six months before his first tour in Malaya ended. (Footnote #213: Allen, Charles.Savage Wars of Peace, Soldiers’ Voices. 1945–1989. Michael Joseph Ltd, London, 1990, p. 55.)
The Director of Operations in Malaya, General Sir Geoffrey Bourne, suggested that a replacement squadron should be formed from volunteers from The Parachute Regiment. Bourne’s suggestion was not received with the greatest of enthusiasm by the SAS, but
… at the time the SAS was desperately short of recruits, officers particularly: the Regiment’s reputation stood so low that the commanding officers of other units were making it difficult for their people to go on the selection course. (Footnote #214: DLB: Looking For Trouble, p. 102.)
The Parachute Regiment and the SAS are different creatures and quite a few of the members of the SAS had less than favourable memories of their treatment at the Airborne Forces Depot in Aldershot before travelling to Malaya.
There was much hostility for the SAS from Airborne Forces, bitterly resented by us at the time, but in most respects it was deserved. Parachute training was not undertaken by our recruits until they were in the Regiment and this lack of that special virility symbol of ‘parachute wings’ was one reason for the scorn and derision. The other reasons were that the World War II record of the SAS was little known even in the Army and the post-war record non-existent. The standard of recruit was not high and used as fatigue men, discipline and morale soon worsened at the Airborne Depot. In later years up to 1962 or so, attempts were made to absorb the SAS into Airborne Forces. Fortunately, I think for both sides these were not successful. The presence of the SAS in Airborne Forces would have been disruptive. I was a Company Commander in 3 Para for a year in 1959, and the qualities of the Para were best maintained, then and as now, by dominant commanders, not at that time by the SAS methods of discussion and self-criticism. (Footnote #215: Interview AAA 25 August 2004.)
However, primarily influenced by the need for additional manpower, the Independent Parachute Regiment Squadron was formed and added to the SAS strength at the end of 1955. Commanded by Major Dudley Coventry, it comprised men from all three Parachute battalions. (Footnote #216: The Parachute Regiment squadron did not have any CT kills during its tour in Malaya from 1955 to 1957. There are some contradictory comments about the ability of the Parachute Regiment soldiers in 22 SAS operations in Malaya. During the Borneo campaign Parachute Regiment soldiers, particularly from Patrol Companies, were also deployed with 22 SAS on operations.)
The Parachute Regiment squadron was quite well trained – it was not up to the standard reached by the SAS squadrons at the time in Malaya but only because it was trained, I think, by the jungle warfare school, which trained the infantry whose operations in Malaya were very different to the SAS operations. However, they did do a good job and, one of the reasons that Dare Newell and I and others in the SAS was so pleased to see them there, was because it completely changed the attitude of the Parachute Regiment towards the SAS. (Footnote #217: Interview AAA 25 August 2004.)
In 1955, a squadron of SAS was raised in New Zealand and after rigorous selection and basic training arrived in Malaya towards the end of the year, where they carried out their parachute course. The total strength of the squadron was 140, a third of whom were Maoris who found it particularly easy to work with the aborigine tribesmen. Major Frank Rennie commanded the squadron. After a brief preparation period they went on to make a valuable contribution to the campaign.
The New Zealand squadron trained in the jungle areas of New Zealand before it came out and when it came, the Commander was attached to my squadron and we got on very well on a personal level, and they were an outstandingly good squadron – they were at least as good as any of the British squadrons – one might perhaps say better. They were really high-class troops. (Footnote #218: Interview AAA 25 August 2004.)
JW, in an interview in later years, commented on the contribution of the Parachute Regiment, and the New Zealanders. His observations on the non-‘organic’ SAS units are of particular interest:
… there is no doubt that the healthy competition provided by Frank Rennie’s Kiwis and Dudley Coventry’s chaps from the Parachute Regiment did the 22nd far more good than many of the old hands were prepared to admit at the time. (Footnote #219: Strawson, J. A History of the SAS Regiment. Guild Publishing, London, 1985, p. 165.)
A normal pattern for a squadron was two months in the jungle, two weeks of leave, two weeks retraining and then back to the jungle. As an example, on Operation SWORD, the SAS suffered three dead as a result of a parachute drop into the jungle in Kedah in January 1954. But in July all three operational squadrons dropped into Perak with only negligible injuries. These encouraging results led to a series of major offensives. The most important of these was Operation TERMITE in July 1954, the largest combined operation to that point in the Emergency. The target was two CT camps in the Kinta and Raia valleys east of Ipoh in the state of Perak, which had long been one of the ‘blackest’ areas in Malaya. More than 50 aircraft (Lincolns, Hornets and Valettas) and helicopters, 200 SAS paratroopers, and ground forces from the 2nd Company, West Yorkshire Regiment, the 1/6th Gurkhas, the Royal Scots Fusiliers, the Singapore Royal Artillery and the Police Field Force were deployed in a coordinated attack on the CT hide-outs. Five RAAF Lincolns and six RAF Lincolns were briefed to make two separate but virtually simultaneous attacks (30 seconds apart) on the camps. As soon as the bombing had ceased (each Lincoln carried 14 1,000-pound bombs), Valettas were to drop two squadrons of the 22nd SAS Regiment as close as possible to the main target, with helicopters following with the ‘tail’ of each SAS headquarters. The SAS had many casualties from injuries received during the parachuting decent into trees. (Footnote #220: In July 1954, Captain P. Head of the Royal Artillery was observing the SAS deployment into Op TERMITE in central Malaya, and stated: ‘It should be borne in mind that the SAS at that time was far from the elite body of today, and it was the dumping ground for every battalion CO’s misfits.’ This was obviously still the general view of the rest of the Army over three years after the SAS had been reformed! Head, P. ‘“O” Field Troop – 1st Singapore Regiment Royal Artillery Malaya 1953–1955. Part 2’.Journal of the Royal Artillery. Spring 2002, p. 62.) At the beginning of 1955 Oliver Brooke, who had replaced Sloane, was injured and replaced by Lieutenant Colonel George Lea. Lea, some years later, took over operational command in Borneo from the legendary General Walter Walker.
Throughout the Emergency, there was no serious attempt by the SAS or other organisations to develop ‘pseudo-gangs’ as used with significant success by the British in Kenya against the Mau Mau (Footnote #221: See FK. Gangs and Counter Gangs. Barrie and Rockcliff, London, 1960.) and by the Rhodesian Selous Scouts in the 1970s. (Footnote #222: See Reid-Daly, R.F. and Stiff, Peter. Selous Scouts – Top Secret War. Galago Publishing (Pty), Alberton, 1982; and Reid-Daly, R.F. Pamwe Chete. Kovos Day Books, Johannesburg, 1999.) In 1952 a Hong Kong Chinese man called Ip Kwang Lau, who had escaped from Hong Kong to join the Chindits, joined SAS. JW used him in CT uniform to link up with the aborigines with a cover story. (Footnote #223: Interview AAA 22 October 2004.) There were no major results (Footnote #224: ‘I remember Ip [Ip Kwang Lau], he was the first SAS guy I saw in Bradbury Lines [SAS camp in Hereford] when I came for Selection in 1964. I staggered through the gates and there was this Chinaman doing one-handed press-ups in front of the Guard-room. I recall a story that ‘Mush’ Morrison [SAS soldier in Malaya] shot a CT in the head while Ip was shaking hands and talking with him on a jungle track’. Interview DDD 22 December 2004.) but a lot of useful information was gained about how the aborigines dealt with the CTs. Lau also did similar work for police special branch (SB) in Sarawak during the Borneo campaign. (Footnote #225: He was based with the SAS in Hereford and retired there. He died on 19 February 1996.)
The MCP failed because it overestimated the backing it would get from the people and by neglecting to organise an adequate open wing to supply and support its operations. The dispersion of its effort geographically and racially throughout the Federation of Malaya undoubtedly contributed to this failure. Having failed to gain a quick victory in any part of the country, it reorganised for a war of attrition. Its high-handed methods in the early stages, the attitude of the Malays and the progress of the Briggs Plan defeated its efforts to gain any widespread measure of support from the people and it fell back on the hope of intervention from outside the country. This hope faded as the situation in Indo-China and Korea became stabilised. (Footnote #226: PRO – WO216/494 – Report No: 1/57.)
Despite popular history developed in such books as Re-enter the SAS, (Footnote #227: See Hoe and Morris:Re-enter the SAS.) the SAS had a very ineffectual role in the early days of the Malay Emergency and, in fact, only became of importance in about 1954 when it had become competent in deep-penetration patrolling. Also, the introduction of the helicopter made the insertion of patrols more tactical.
The success of cutting off the CTs from food and intelligence by the removal of the squatter-based Min Yuen meant that the CTs were virtually defeated as a fighting force and had withdrawn deep into the jungles. The SAS had become efficient at carrying out long patrols and, in association with the police forts, were probably the most capable of the units in-country to do this type of work. The SAS had greater flexibility than the regular infantry units and their soldiers, very few of whom were conscripts, and who were generally older than their army counterparts, gave fewer administrative problems, to FARELF headquarters, on long patrols.
I would think that we had about 6 or 7 National Servicemen in my squadron of about 70 men, and they of course didn’t serve for two years of the tour, so whatever was left of their tour probably about one year, and they were, in general, very good. They had been on a selection course from 1952 onwards – everyone went on a selection course, including the National Servicemen – so they probably didn’t have much more than a year in the Regiment. (Footnote #228: Interview AAA 25 August 2004.)
In retrospect, 1951–52 could be seen as the turning point in the campaign. Victory had been denied the terrorists; demoralisation had been averted, and the ‘white’ areas had inched forward, so the reforms began to make an impact. An independent Western-orientated Malaya became possible. As the security patrols probed deeper into the jungle, the isolation of the guerrillas increased. The first truce overtures were made by the communists in 1955 and 1957 and by then their numbers had fallen to around 2,000. Nevertheless, the magnitude of the security forces’ task is well illustrated when it was reported that an average of 1,000 patrol hours were needed to capture a terrorist and no fewer than 1,600 to achieve the kill. Ambushes, dependent upon a good intelligence, were rather more rewarding, with a success for every 350 hours spent in wait. Air support included helicopters, first introduced in 1950, and regularly used from 1953. These proved valuable – increasing troop mobility, making deeper penetration into jungle possible, and improving the soldiers’ morale, particularly since they could speedily remove the wounded to medical care. A naval squadron alone carried 10,000 troops and 300 casualties in 1953 and the first months of 1954. The Navy also operated along the coast, further restricting guerrilla mobility and supplies. Finally the army moved into central Malaya and the northern border state of Kedah to try and deny the guerrillas a last refuge. Medical and technical aid helped to win over the local primitive tribesman, and throughout Malaya soldiers did much to win the confidence of the population.
By the end of 1955, the back of the Malayan terrorist campaign had been broken and murder of civilians was down to five or six a month. The CT leadership had fled to Thailand and the policy of rewarding defections had paid off. Low-flying aircraft equipped with loudspeakers made tempting offers of money and food. The SAS campaign wound down during 1956 and 1957. At the end of 1956 the regiment’s official ‘score’ was 89 terrorists killed and nine captured and by the end of 1959 it was a total of 108.
In 1957 deep cuts in the military were made, and the SAS squadrons, depleted already, were made smaller and consolidated – B Squadron was disbanded and its men absorbed by the understrength A and D Squadrons.
By the end of 1958 and under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Tony Deane-Drummond, DSO, MC, the writing was on the wall for the SAS’s future in Malaya. The figures stated at the time were that 6,400 terrorists had been killed with a further 3,000 captured or surrendered. The total number of terrorists killed by the SAS was small when compared to some of the outstanding British infantry battalions, composed mainly of National Servicemen, who rotated through the theatre. In his memoirs, Chin Peng does not mention the SAS at all during the main years of the Emergency and only makes reference to them possibly trying to assassinate him on the Thai border in 1960. (Footnote #229: Peng: My Side of History, pp. 406 and 410.) This apparent contradiction is explained by JW in a conversation with the author in August 2004.
As far as I know, he never himself went very deep into the jungle, most of his autobiography is concerned with when he was in Perak, I think, and North Malaya, where he was in fairly close contact with the larger force of terrorists who were based naturally enough near their potential targets – the roads and the railway.
Judged purely in terms of ‘kills’ the success rate of the SAS Regiment in Malaya was unimpressive. In eight years it was in Malaya the SAS killed 108 terrorists, significantly fewer than outstanding units such as The Suffolks and the Royal Hampshires and some of the Gurkha battalions achieved in two or three years.
They only killed a 100 plus terrorists but they did a job which would not have been effectively done by infantry battalions. (Footnote #230: Interview AAA 25 August 2004.)
However, 22 SAS had gained a wealth of experience in long-term, deep-penetration, jungle patrolling.
Compounding this was the effective British, and later, Australian (Footnote #231: The Australians did not have special forces operating during the Emergency but they did have infantry units deployed. Chin Peng may have been confusing the Australians with the NZ SAS patrols.) patrolling of deep jungle areas. (Footnote #232: Peng: My Side of History, p. 395.)
The SAS did play an effective role in the collection of intelligence, harassment of the CT lines of communications, and by the investment of their ‘safe’ areas.
Chin Peng mentions the disruption of courier which was the method of passing orders and instructions and policy matters throughout the whole of the Chinese terrorist organisation, and the disruption of these routes would occur in the deep jungle, largely through the presence of the SAS.(Footnote #233: Interview AAA 25 August 2004.)
The unit had also gained a certain reputation for dealing effectively and empathetically with the indigenous population such as the Orang Asli. These tribes lived in the vast depths of the jungle and CTs blistered onto them for secure bases providing food and early warning of attack. The SAS task was to disrupt this arrangement. There was the danger of natives betraying or killing SAS, who would always be at a disadvantage however clever they might be in the jungle. In 1951, Sakai aborigines murdered Trooper J.A. O’Leary, who became detached from his patrol and lost in the jungle.(Footnote #234: O’Leary’s remains were located by an SAS patrol behind an ambush position they were about to use and recovered by Allan Glass, an officer of the Malayan Police who had been attached to the SAS. O’Leary was identified by a gold earring he wore.) The majority of publications about the conflict and the part played by the SAS refer to the critical importance of these Orang Asli/aborigines to the CTs. Chin Peng makes one small reference to them in his entire biography.
In Kelantan, we had a few small groups in very remote camps working among the Orang Asli.(Footnote #235: Peng: My Side of History, p. 403.)
Either he wishes to play down the part they played in assisting his forces, or the aborigines did not play as an important part in the conflict as we are led to believe.
The SAS played a very small part in the very large campaign in Malaya; they had struggled to survive throughout the conflict and, even by the end, most people had not heard of them.
In these early years a number of key personnel firmly established their relationship with the future of BSF and they continue to appear as the permanency of the SAS becomes firmly established. Calvert has nothing further to do with the SAS in an official capacity but remains a firm supporter of the organisation until his death. JW, Lea, Newell, DLB and JS feature in later campaigns. An element of cult-following is evident, particularly where personal lobbying is required to ensure SAS participation in future conflicts.
The future of the SAS was certainly not guaranteed by its contribution to the Malayan Campaign. Other issues including major forces withdrawals and military downsizing were being debated in Whitehall, and the SAS was not necessarily high on the strategic agenda. Moreover, some of the staff officers involved in the discussions were not necessarily benevolent to the SAS, particularly if the future of their own regiments was at risk.
On 31 July 1960, the ‘Emergency’ finally ended – with a victory parade in Kuala Lumpur. Britain had achieved all of its aims in Malaya: the insurgents were defeated, and, with independence in 1957, the country was set upon a course of political and economic development in which Britain’s substantial economic interests were essentially preserved.
Now, all restrictions were lifted except in the Thai border area, where a Border Security Council was formed to control the remnants of the MRLA in remote regions in Perlis, Kedah, Perak and Kelantan – all that was left of the estimated 12,000 men and women who had passed through its ranks. Of these, 6,698 had been killed, 2,696 surrendered and 2,819 wounded. About a thousand more had died, deserted, or had been liquidated by their commanders.
The cost in lives to Malaya, and those who fought for it, had been heavy. The Security Forces had lost 1,865 killed, 2,560 wounded; 2,473 civilians had been murdered, 1,385 wounded and 810 were missing. It was also a war in which the Police suffered 70 per cent of the total casualties and in which Malays in the special police squads killed more of the enemy than did the entire British army.
The impact of the SAS was valuable but certainly not critical and their absence would not have affected the timing or the outcome of the campaign. Success in jungle operations is about good training, not about having elite troops.
If jungle operations are to achieve success, special training is, indeed, necessary but not special men.(Footnote #236: Thompson, Robert. Defeating Communist Insurgency. Experiences from Malaya and Borneo. Chatto and Windus Ltd, London, 1966, p. 155.)
The main input the SAS made to the campaign was the contribution by Mike Calvert to the content of the Briggs Plan and the implementation of deep-penetration, long-range patrolling.
Calvert was the originator of all the basic SAS tactics in Malaya. (Footnote #237: Interview AAA 25 August 2004.)
Chin Peng is quite clear about what defeated his forces. In December 1955 his view of the situation was:
The battlefield outlook for our forces by this time was indeed gloomy. The Briggs Plan with its objective of starving us out of the jungle had been the foundation of a devastatingly effective programme. It had increasingly denied us access to our Min Yuen supporters and lines of supply. (Footnote #238: Peng: My Side of History, p. 395.)
If Calvert made mistakes, JW never had any doubts as to his value as the ‘originator of the post-war SAS’, whose ideas on the employment of special forces in counter-insurgency were to have a major impact on SAS thinking.
The continuing survival of the SAS was a close-run thing and was, primarily, as a result of a committee of enquiry into the role of special forces, not, the unit’s operations in Malaya;
That the SAS did survive to fight another day during that critical decade before 1957 was the result of a committee of inquiry into the role of Special Forces, headed by a Lieutenant-General. This group soberly evaluated the impact of all the private armies of the Second World War, including the Long Range Desert Group, Lovat Scouts, Popski’s Private Army, SAS, PARAs, Commandos … even, it is jokingly suggested, the Royal Corps of Tree Climbers. (Footnote #239: Geraghty: Who Dares Wins, pp. 39–40.)
Calvert, the man of unrecognised vision, knew quite clearly that the SAS had a unique role to play in Malaya.
Be under no illusions about this business. We in this unit are not going to win the war. All that we can do is to play a particular part in it for which other Army units are neither trained nor suited.(Footnote #240: Hoe and Morris: Re-enter, p. 205.)
A blunt analysis of the effectiveness of the SAS in the Malayan Campaign has to be: would their absence have affected the outcome of the conflict at all – and, if so, how? The answer must be that the contribution of the SAS to the Malayan Emergency did not affect the outcome at all. An SAS troop officer of the time defines his view of the results of SAS activities – with a certain amount of defensiveness:
I can’t say that the British would never have won in Malaya if there had been no SAS, but it would have been a slower and more difficult process, and the finishing off of it. (Footnote #241: Interview AAA 25 August 2004.)
A continuing theme is the key part that SAS personalities played in the usage of the SAS in the Malayan campaign and the minimal input received from the Ministry of Defence or the government to direct their utilisation.
But, ironically, the Malayan campaign contributed to the development of the SAS, providing it with a harsh classroom in which it was able to develop a number of skills and tactical procedures which were utilised soon after and which continue to be used today. The experience in Malaya gave a background to developing counter-guerrilla tactics which, as it turned out, was extremely fortunate because, only five years after the end of the operation in Malaya, a much bigger operation took place in Borneo for which the SAS was very well trained and Malay happened to be the language again that was required. (Footnote #242: Interview AAA 25 August 2004.)
However, it was events in Oman, in the Middle East, which provided the unit with a unique, and timely, opportunity to demonstrate its usefulness.
Excerpted from Special Force: The Untold Story of 22nd Special Air Service Regiment (SAS) by Alastair MacKenzie.
Copyright © 2011 Alastair MacKenzie.
Reprinted with permission of the publisher.
ALASTAIR MACKENZIE comes from a military family of long standing and himself served as an officer in New Zealand, South Africa, Oman and the UK, where for four years, he was troop commander in the 22nd Special Air Services Regiment. After his retirement as a full-time Army officer, he enjoyed a successful commercial career with Royal Ordnance and British Aerospace before setting up his own consultancy firm. In civilian life, he retained an involvement with the Territorial Army as an SAS officer and retired with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel in 2001. He obtained his Ph.D. in Politics in 2005 and is the author of a number of articles for military journals, and of the book Special Force.